Friday, December 17, 2010

Black Swan (2010)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder
Directed By: Darren Aronofsky

We've seen films that have been focused on a protagonist's descent into madness before. But it's never been done quite like director Darren Aronofsky's film, Black Swan.

This was one of the few films I was excited about this year -- from the moment I first saw the trailer, I couldn't wait to see how the two duelling halves of a ballet dancer's mind would pan out under Aronofsky's direction. There's always this reluctance when I'm really excited about a film -- I always wonder if it will live up to the hype and the greatness of its trailer. Thankfully, Black Swan lives up to its rave critical reviews.

This is a very difficult movie to review without giving everything away. For a lack of a better word, the film is completely demented. It's bizarre, twisted, over-the-top and, at times, downright campy. That being said, I loved every minute of it. It's a breath of fresh air amidst the sequels, prequels and romcoms that usually fill the cinema's around this time of year.

What it all comes down to, though, is the performance by Natalie Portman. Without her, Black Swan would have lost a large portion of what makes it work so well. As young dancer, Nina, Portman is so convincing in her role that you literally feel you are witnessing an actual nervous breakdown. Nina works though her gruelling auditions in an attempt to convince both herself and her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), that she can convincingly portray both the ethereal and graceful white swan, Odette, and Odette's dark, sexual and possessive counterpart, Odile, the black swan, in the company's upcoming production of Swan Lake.

I've always found Portman to be a little hit or miss, as an actress. It's hard to believe the same woman who struggled through the Star Wars prequels is now the lead contender for Best Actress in this years Oscar race. Her delicate, innocent and almost childlike portrayal of Nina is heartbreaking as she awkwardly struggles to find her darker, sexualized self. Portman effectively portrays both the light and dark within Nina and, most surprisingly, does a lot of her own ballet dancing in the film. I have nothing but the utmost respect for actors who immerse themselves in research for their roles and it's clear that Portman spent a lot of time preparing for her greatest role yet.

Nina lives in a world of pink pyjamas and teddy bears (her mother, played by Barbara Hershey, still tucks her in at night) in an attempt to move past her dark past of bulimia and a scratching disorder. But with the mounting pressures of the upcoming Swan Lake production and the vicious taunting by Thomas, backup dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) and former ballet queen, Beth (Winona Ryder), results in Nina's violent, sexual and dark hallucinations. Her dark swan is struggling to break through it's pure white exterior.

The Toronto Star movie critic, Peter Howell, made a good point when he said that Aronofsky tends to take one intense main performance (as he did most recently with The Wrestler) and "frames it within an unyielding study of an obsessive pursuit."

The supporting cast holds up well considering the focus is almost entirely on Portman. I only wish we got to learn more about Cassel's Thomas in terms of his motivations and treatment of Nina.

Overall, this exciting and odd little film has not only one of the strongest female performances of the year but it's also visually beautiful and the dancing is incredible.



  1. Loved how so much of Swan Lake was evoked in BLACK SWAN, and how obsessed it is with...well...obsession.

    Going into this I was expecting to see more of what we got in THE WRESTLER (not a far leap, since this story was originally supposed to be a part of that film).

    That I walked out with a feeling more akin to my REQUIEM FOR A DREAM fallout is unreal.

    Great review! This movie will forever make me think of the longest TIFF Rush Line I've ever seen.

  2. I blame her performances in the Star Wars prequel on George Lucas's direction (or lack thereof). Other than her role in that film, I can't think of another movie where I've seen her be a weak link.

  3. Mad Hatter: Agreed! Even the soundtrack (both original and the snippets from Swan Lake) made the whole thing feel like an actual twisted ballet.

    Did you see this at TIFF? There was so much buzz about it there.

    Lyz: Lucas can make great actors do bad things. It's just that she was so terrible in them that it's hard for me to forget them.

  4. Much of the film's strength does indeed lie with Portman's commanding, endearing performance.

    I hadn't not put a lot of thought into her character's psychological journey and her mother's habitual pampering. Nina's mother's behaviour is like a defense mechanism against the harsh world. As a dancer in the background for most of her career, Nina was still rather sheltered from immeasurable pressure. Once sha nabs the leading role, even her mother's cacoon begins to crack. Very interesting stuff.

  5. It's interesting because we don't know much about Nina's mother, but what we do know paints an interesting picture. She's a former dancer herself and likely went through a lot of the same pressure Nina suffers from ...I think she partially envies her daughters talent while, at the same time, being protective of her because of the inevitable pressure and the fact that Nina has a past with scratching and bulimia.

  6. A well written review of a brilliant film. I like your coverage, detailed and reaching, including snippets from other sources to support you observations, commentary and criticism. I prefer that method in my own reviews as it seems to offer a more robust and engaging review that brings varying opinions together to form a more cohesive and interesting review. Bravo.

    I love the Peter Howell quote.

    @Lyz - Agreed. After The Professional she is rightfully entitled to make at least a handful of "for the check" films and her performance here was complete, painful and beautifully realized.

    Lots to say. I hope you'll consider my review soon but until then drop by and say hello:

    Above the Line: Practical movie reviews

  7. Thanks Rory! I'm glad you came across my blog. I definitely include quotes from other sources sometimes: sometimes other people just articulate things better than I ever could.

    I've just added your site to my blogroll. From what I've seen, it looks great!