The Black Swan

Posted on March 29, 2011 at 8:00 am

Ballet is more than a profession or even an art form; it is a calling, almost a cult, that demands the ultimate commitment. Ballerinas give everything they have. Director Darren Aronofsky, always drawn to stories about obsession, now takes us inside the mind of a woman who is becoming unraveled.

Ballet is about art but also about discipline and control. It tests every muscle in the body and every bit of resolve of the spirit. Natalie Portman plays Nina (the very name evoking a sort of uncertain syllabic wobble), the daughter of a failed ballet dancer (Barbara Hershey) who has focused on Nina as her second chance to realize her dreams of stardom. Nina is a child-like adult, completely sheltered by her mother and her nun-like commitment to dance.

She wants more than anything to have the lead role in that most revered of ballets, Swan Lake. It is really two lead roles — the story is about a princess who is turned into a white swan. Her chance for breaking the enchantment is lost when the prince is seduced by her nemesis, the black swan. The director (a faun-like Vincent Cassel) tells her he is certain she can perform the part of the white swan with technical perfection. But he is not sure she has the passion, the sensuousness, the willingness to take risks to play the black swan. As she struggles to both maintain and lose control, the world around her distorts. Her mother’s art studio is filled with dozens of portraits of Nina, and their eyes move as she walks by. Nina keeps catching glimpses of herself in mirrors and reflective surfaces. The company’s newest dancer is Lily (Mila Kunis), her name another wobble on the tongue. Is she a friend, a rival, to be feared, hated, desired, overcome? Is she just another of Nina’s reflections?

Visual and narrative symbols of duality and doppelgangers are everywhere, with black, white, gray, and toe shoe pink as the movie’s palette. The script is heavy-handed at times, especially in the scenes with Nina’s mother. But Aronofsky draws us into Nina’s struggles with reality until, like her, we are never sure whether we can trust our eyes. Portman, who studied ballet for a year and did most of the dance moves herself, is superb her struggle to stay in control showing in every muscle, her yearning to break free fighting with her need for approval. Cassel’s louche manipulator, Kunis’ confident rival, and Winona Ryder’s brittle rage as the fading prima ballerina whose role (and lipstick) Nina covets are all exceptional and like Nina herself we experience the performance of the ballet itself as both tragedy and triumph.

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11 Replies to “The Black Swan”

  1. Nell,
    That is one of the best descriptions of Aronofsky’s style that I have read to date! He certainly is an odd duck, but makes some beautifully disturbing films.
    My only fear/criticism is how his style keeps a lot of people away from his films. Some are disturbed by his work. Others don’t get it. And some people just don’t like to think while watching a film. It’s a shame that he has a limited audience, but that is the price he pays for his art.
    Natalie Portman is definitely getting my Best Actress vote…whoa!

  2. Natalie Portman is magnificent as the demon-ridden ballerina, Nina Sayers. That said, the movie itself, while entertaining enough, could have been been a little less discombobulated. Aronofsky is neither clear nor particularly successful in his efforts to create intrigue by jumping back and forth between what is supposedly really happening and what exists only in Nina’s deranged mind…which begs the question: Is any of it really happening? This is a film that could have been a lot better. Unfortunately, it tends to get mired in its own confusion.

  3. Thanks, Shary. SPOILER ALERT: I think that from the moment the director announces that she has the starring role, moments after he told her the contrary, we’re on notice that everything is from her distorted perspective. But I agree with you.

  4. I went with a friend to see this tonight, after the previews and reading your blog.
    I was not disappointed. The movie was a study in opposites–disturbing and breathtaking, safe and insane…
    I felt like Shary did though, at the end…was Nina still asleep and all of the performance a dream?

  5. Thanks, cstanley! In my view, from the moment that the director announces that she has the role, just after telling her she does not, we are on notice that we are seeing everything through the dancer’s increasingly deranged worldview. What do you think?

  6. **Spoiler Alert** I’m glad I found this discussion. I just saw the movie last night and found it entertaining, jarring and thought-provoking. Here was my ultimate question/thought at the end of the movie: Were Nina and Lily the same person for most of the movie? I couldn’t help but think of Fight Club as you watch this duality in individual people. I for sure thought they were! Much like what Nell said, I think the distortions begin after Nina is made the lead, thus the distortion of Lily as a real person begins(rather, she is a figment of Nina’s imagination). What draws Lily to search for Nina at her house in the first place? Why does she care so much? Is it the narcissistic side of Nina thinking that because she is the lead role, people seek her out to gain her approval since that’s what she’s been doing to others most of her life? I think Lily is there to dispel Nina’s doubts by telling her how amazing she is all the time. The black swan carries that empowerment that she needed and never gave herself. What do you all think?

  7. Great review, Nell. Spoilery comment at the end of my post. I saw this movie on New Year’s Day with my brother, sister-in-law, and two nieces (aged 16 and 18). We were going to “True Grit,” but it was sold out, and my nieces really wanted to see this movie. It was a little too much for their aunt, actually. And I am now clear that I will never again need to ask before buying a movie for one of my nieces, “Is this too grown-up for them?” While it was a beautiful film to look at, and Natalie Portman was quite amazing, I must admit that I found the ending a bit over-the-top. Shades of “A Double Life.”

  8. Great comment, Bridge! I also thought of “Fight Club” when I saw the movie. Certainly, if there is a real Lily, she is not what we see her as through Nina’s eyes. I love your point about the black swan. She does get that empowerment, but then the guilt consumes her.

  9. I had to double check to see what site I was reading and yes, it’s called Movie Mom. This movie, although well played, was one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Totally inappropriate for human consumption. I had heard no news of it and had I known, I’d have saved my money.

  10. Sorry to hear that, Cherrie. If you read my review, you will see my strong warning about the content of the film, intended to deter audiences like you who find the material offensive or disturbing.

  11. I saw it last night- beautifully directed & acted, horrifying, mesmerizing, and oh-so-real while not reality. I appreciated the subtlety of many parts that assumes we aren’t stupid. Many adults won’t be able to handle this movie. I could relate on many points and thought the pefectionist unraveling when pushed to achieve her desired perfection was on the mark. Lily did exist, but I wondered if she was pushed upon Nina by the director to loosen her up? The question we heard at the end was “Do you think she died?” I say yes – what about you?

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