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January 13, 2011


Movie Review – Black Swan (2010)


The characters of Black Swan breathe the rarefied air of high culture. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina in a prestigious New York company. The company director is an expatriate French sophisticate. The dancers are beautiful, totally dedicated to their art, and terribly thin.

When Nina is presented to the public as the next Odette, the Swan Princess in the company’s marquee production of Swan Lake, it is to a room filled with wealthy donors in glamorous evening clothes sipping fine champagne.

Nina’s mind is fragile; her emotions repressed. Dancing the dual role of the innocent, doomed White Swan and her seductress doppelganger the Black Swan precipitates a long-brewing psychological crisis.

In summary, Black Swan is an arty psychodrama about an artist’s mental breakdown.

And yet.

Writer-director Darren Aronofsky has made a movie that is vital and contemporary. He forces the audience into Nina’s disintegrating mind using the visuals and sound design of a horror film. Approaching footsteps and other ominous noises punctuate the musical score, while Tchaikovsky’s music for Swan Lake is the omnipresent, haunting soundtrack to Nina’s life. The camera hovers around her at all times. Because we can’t see beyond her field of vision, we are captive to her delusions and perpetual anxieties. We can’t see into the shadows because she can’t trust her own eyes. A bogeyman could appear behind her at any moment.

In Portman’s performance, Nina is more than a construct, but she is also a construct. She is the trauma of being a young woman in modern America.

Ballet epitomizes the culture’s impossible-to-fulfill standard of physical perfection and eternal youthfulness. Nina is anorexic and bulimic. In being elevated to the starring role, she is replacing the company’s former prima ballerina, who is “such a beautiful dancer” but already old, forced into retirement at thirty-something. The White Swan/Black Swan dichotomy is an unsubtle, potent symbol of irreconcilable images/idols of innocence and sexuality. Other characters’ demands embody the symbolic battle over her body. Nina’s horror of a mother would keep her daughter her little girl forever, while the director she idolizes demands a sexual being who will fulfill his particular artistic vision.

Black Swan is a challenging and difficult film for several reasons, but perhaps for no greater reason than its unremitting seriousness. The filmmaking insists on total identification with Nina’s mind. Her childlike self-absorption and lack of perspective rule out even the tiniest hint of levity. She can’t see anything funny in what’s happening to her and therefore, neither can the film. It’s a bold demand to make of a nation of moviegoers accustomed to irony and other such shortcuts to emotional detachment.

3 1/2 stars


Review of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 13 2011

    Great review; very eloquent. :OD

  2. Helen
    Jan 14 2011

    Thanks Nir. :-) This review gave me a hard time- it’s a tough movie to encapsulate.

  3. Jan 14 2011

    When having trouble, stick to simplicity. Sometimes a bare bones explanation is good enough, I find. :O)

  4. Helen
    Jan 15 2011

    My coping strategy for writer’s block is to start writing simple declarative sentences. It’s surprisingly effective!

  5. Jan 16 2011

    That makes sense. I’ll give it a go, seeing that I’d been slightly blocked for a couple of weeks now…

  6. miriam
    Jan 18 2011

    Someone remarked that Aronofsky had made melodrama popular again. There is some melodrama about Black Swan, just as there are elements of horror and a putting-on-a-show movie. I think part of its unexpectedly wide audience appeal is the classic fairy tale quality of Nina’s life – think unedited Grimm not Disney – twined with the tale of the Swan Queen; the two twine ever more tightly as Nina spins ever faster on stage until they are one. The music is such a powerful carrier of emotion in itself that it has to get some of the credit for the film’s intensity.

  7. Jan 27 2011

    Natalie Portman does a great job at giving this film the kick that it needed, and she definitely has that Oscar in the bag. Good Review!

  8. Helen
    Jan 28 2011

    Thanks Dan! Before Black Swan, I would have said Portman’s career had spectacularly failed to fulfill the promise of her performances in The Professional and Beautiful Girls (she had charmed since then, but not impressed). I’m glad to not be able to say that anymore.

  9. Jan 28 2011

    As a person who’s not a Natalie Portman fan but believes that she deserves an Oscar for Black Swan, I have to remind everyone of her Oscar nominated performance in Closer, which is an awesome film. :O)

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