Black Swan Review

Published 4 years ago by , Updated December 4th, 2010 at 2:04 am,

Black Swan movie clip Black Swan Review

In terms of technique, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is arguably a masterpiece. The way Aronofsky manipulates sight, sound and editing to create this story of ambition and madness, shows that he is truly one those increasingly-rare directors who is worthy of the title “filmmaker,” as oppossed to “glorified video game and/or music video maker.”

So why am I not yet ready to tout Black Swan as “the film of the year?” Because for all its technical marvel – and wonderful performances – the movie falls short of its primary goal: conveying a moving and/or interesting story.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has been a dedicated little ballerina all her life, but even though she belongs to a prestigious New York ballet company, she’s never really had her opportunity to shine in the limelight, center stage. That all changes when the director of the company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), decides that his former star and “little princess,” Beth (Winona Ryder), no longer has the necessary magic to light up the stage. Thomas has a new and edgy interpretation of “Swan Lake” planned and he needs a Swan Queen who can embody both the light and dark aspects of the soul. He knows Nina has what it takes to embody the light side, but the quiet, timid, girl lacks that dark edge of a true Black Swan.

Enter Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer who is wild and passionate where Nina is disciplined and almost robotically precise. Lily quickly catches Thomas’ attention and as she and Nina get closer, Nina begins fear that her position as queen is in danger of being usurped.

While this might sound like the plot of a good thriller, in truth, Black Swan only borrows select parts from that genre, while it also attempts to stitch a patchwork together from a strange mix of other genres, including Film Noir and late 70s/early 80s horror films. The Noir influences can be seen in the distorted framing of characters’ faces and New York City terrain, giving an atmosphere of ominousness at all times (an echo of Nina’s attitude about the world).  The horror/thriller movie influences are found in many scenes in which Nina is alone and her fragile mind begins to buckle under the pressure. All the classic tropes are there – freakish “reflection” shots, see-it-now-you-don’t jump scares, sound bridging that blends the noise of one scene into another – classic tricks designed to keep you, the viewer, as edgy and frightened as Nina. The message here is clear: professional artistry and/or athleticism can be more draining and hellish than a weekend at Camp Crystal Lake.

Natalie Portman Black Swan image Black Swan Review

Of course, the film is also comprised of the signatures that have come to define Aronofsky. The influence of the director’s more artsy and stylish early work (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) can be seen in the close-up shots and sequences of feet at work, nails being cut, dancers’ shoulders and arms in motion and other areas of physicality and routine that Aronofsky manages to make feel precarious and edgy. The influence of The Wrestler, on the other hand, can be seen at points where the director presses the camera almost uncomfortably close on Nina, hovering just on or over her shoulder wherever she goes to the point (which I suspect is THE point) that a clear visual metaphor is established: to this character there is no outside world, only the world as it exists in her mind.

This would be an intriguing approach if Nina was a more intriguing character. However, sadly, for me, this was not the case. I will say that Portman delivers an impassioned performance in this film, in the sense that she wholeheartedly attacks the role in much the same way that her character is asked to attack a set of pirouettes at one point. Yet Nina is not what I would call a complex or interesting character – in fact, I dare say she is one-note: crazy. From the moment the film opens, it’s clear that this person we are supposed to identify with and follow has an obvious screw loose – her mom has a screw loose, their home life is screwy (think Carrie) and Nina always seems to have her emotions screwed with by the one thing she is supposed to love: dancing.

Taken altogether, I found it hard to buy that this character – who never once in the film seems to enjoy what she’s doing – would actually go to the lengths she does and sacrifice what she does to reach her goal. And, despite the overarching theme of negative transformation (which is quite literally prophesied at one point early in the film), the only transformation I saw in Nina was that of a girl who goes from being crazy to being crazier. This is not exactly a new trait of Aronofsky’s work, but at least with some of his earlier entries there’s a sense that at one point the characters were not the mess we see them as – that even if they don’t go anywhere, they at least came from somewhere better to arrive where they are. Nina offers no sense of real transition – just the heavy-handed and obvious “transformation” into the embodiment of the titular creature, which again, is no surprise given how unbalanced the character is from the start.

Natalie Portman Black Swan TV spot Black Swan Review

I would place most of the blame for Nina’s lack of depth (and the movie’s) on screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin – although for me, Portman’s performance still carried too many shades of her Star Wars goody-two-shoes naive princess, combined with her “bad girl” performance from that SNL rap video spoof. Her portrayal of Nina, while good enough, is far from Oscar-worthy in my opinion – especially when her co-star Vincent Cassel slinks in and steals almost every scene right out from under her, playing a snobbish artist type who is equally as brilliant and passionate as he is manipulative, sleazy and even (arguably) abusive. Same goes for Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother, a woman who is bright and loving or dark and oppressive, depending on the minute. If anything, I would say Black Swan features some Award-worthy supporting performances – though let’s not add Mila Kunis to that list; she basically plays the same free-spirited femme fatale we saw in Extract last year.

In the end, Black Swan is exactly like Nina herself: a beautiful mess of technical perfection that would reach greatness if only it was more interesting. It’s a rare case where I feel I can shower praise on a director for his skill, actors for their performances, and still walk away unimpressed by the movie as a whole. Kind of like the chances of seeing an actual Black Swan: rare, but not impossible.

Black Swan trailer:

Our Rating:

3.5 out of 5
(Very Good)

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  1. what were those scratches on her back–and those black things she pulled out of her back looked like mascarra brushes!? how did her eyes get red???

    • She was schizophrenic. She didn’t really pull anything out of her back, but those were feathers, representing the black swan part of her. The scratches on her back were from self injury. Her eyes weren’t truly red at any time, it was contacts or her having a delusion.

  2. I just watched Black Swan and I thought it was wretched, never mind ‘not great’. Natalie portman must be the most overrated actress ever. essentially, she had the same face throughout the movie: a sort of constipated blubbering.
    There was no story! The mother’s character should have been far more developed, instead, she was, first, a bunch of cliches, the domineering stage mother pushing the frail daughter, but then, randomly, metamorphosed into a caring mother: “this role is destroying you!” yet shows up glowing with pride at the show. What the hell? No sense at all.
    Where’s the backstory? What is this scratching business? Why is she so weak and frail? And why doesn’t this viewer at least not care about her at all? No film can work if u can’t connect to the main player.
    And as for this business with Lily: let’s see, an implacable enemy suddenly turns up and says, I am sorry u were great. Believable? Stunning turnabout? No. Lame.
    And that’s it in a nutshell. Lame. I think it got all these glowing reviews because ppl are weirded out by ballet. It is very weird, brutal, bloody, cruel, but fragile and lovely. Like Chinese loved foot-binding.

    • Very well put, Fiona!

  3. Ok so you don’t have to always have “likable” main characters, but Portman was so bland, boring, weak and passive that we have a main character that you don’t care about at all, she brought nothing to this role other than that she knows how to starve herself. Like Penelope Cruz i’n gothika, she was dark and twisted but you still care about her….

  4. What I’m getting from many of the comments here is that a lot of people just didn’t get this movie. I loved and thought it was a brilliantly executed Hitchcock-esque thriller. A few thoughts:

    1) There was never any indication from any of the trailers or movie posters that this was going to be a feel good movie. Have you ever seen any Aronofsky movies? The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream. This man does not make feel good movies. In fact, he is a master of highly disturbing cinema.

    2) For the person complaining that the relationship with Mila Kunis didn’t make sense, hello, it’s because she wasn’t real. They are the same person. And yes, the sex scene was necessary because it is showing Natalie’s transformation into a more uninhibited, and in many ways out of control, version of herself. Natalie is supposed to be cold and unemotional. It makes the contrast with Mila’s character more stark.

    3) I also believe that there are, arguably, subtle hints of sexual abuse by the mom. When she stands in the door and asks “are you ready for me?”. The way she has Natalie lick the icing off her finger, the undressing of her, and the brief glimpse of her face we see when Natalie and Mila are on the bed(another reason the sex scene becomes necessary.) This also explains the psychosis building in Natalie’s character more thoroughly and could explain a multiple personality type situation as it relates to Mila’s character.

    Anyway, these are my thoughts. This movie does not spell everything out for you. It takes some reading between the lines. Otherwise, if you just take it at face value, it probably would seem confusing and not as interesting.

    • Right on the nose, saijmen.

      • Right on it saijmen these people obviously don’t watch many movies and haven’t got a clue about all the pieces of this movie fit and make it edgy

  5. I was intrigued by the movie and wanted to watch a good movie and a good story, especially with all the oscar buzz.
    I did watch it and I wonder how I lasted until the end. It was so painful.
    First of all, it looked like the movie was shot with a Canon Digital rebel with poor low-light quality picture.
    The cinematography was just awful and I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t use a steadycam.
    The camera may have been intentionally shaking but it gets old and very uncomfortable very quickly.
    I also had an overdose of the camera following her (very closely) and showing the back of her neck.
    Just like I had enough of her constantly crying and her being on the verge of breaking down.
    The camera was always too close to the characters that made me suffocate and gave a sense of claustrophobia.
    Perhaps, that was meant to be that way but many times, I had to look away from the screen because it was just unbearable.
    The dancing scenes were most of the time too close as well, perhaps in order to hide the flaws.
    I will also mention the large amount of uncomfortable scenes related to sex (and I’m not an angel myself).
    Anyway, all I can say is that I want my money back.

  6. The amount of people who either hated or did not understand this movie makes me genuinely sad. It is like our culture is so used to romantic comedies and silly action movies that, when presented with a movie that is meant to make you think, we just do not want to process it. I think this movie has provided a stunningly accurate window into a psychological breakdown. Like the novel The Bell Jar, it is painful in parts. It makes you uncomfortable. And it takes a bit of inference on the part of the watcher, but it is well worth it. While I agree that Natalie Portman was not the most lovable character, she did an amazing job portraying an anorexic, possibly sexually abused dancer with pressure coming at her from all sides. People are not warm, passionate or vibrant during a psychological break. She played a broken character and she played it well. In my opinion, this movie is not just great, but it is important.

    • You got it Carly. Too bad so many others didn’t.

    • Very true that this film is similar to The Bell Jar! Great novel, great great film. And the fact that The King’s Speech won the Oscar over this film proves how consumed our society is with feel-good movies.

  7. I must say you have voiced all my thoughts when I finished watching this film. I think the problem is not Natalie’s performance, but her character Nina. Nina lacks any real evidence of creativity and of passion that truly drives her to craziness as shown in this movie. Natalie has indeed done a very well job in delivering an accurate portrait of a paranoid, abusive, and innocent girl, but not a great dancer, not mad-genius.

    She so far seems to be a puppet in the hand of her instructor and her mother. She is not even nurtured in a healthy environment but only an obssessed mom, more important, a mom who regrets to ever give birth to her and thus losing her career.

  8. The opening line of this review says it all…

    [i][b]In terms of technique, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is arguably a masterpiece.[/b][/i]

    But let me repeat what i had to say about this piece as a narrative and indicator of the psychological value in todays world of half-baked drama…

    [/i]Clearly this scene is meant to ravel the mystique of the kept woman not as a physical domain of concubine or harem girl but more directly as a woman who does everything right and still forgets to check in with her true self as both animal nature and social contributor… love this psychodramatic power handed over to Portman as a world of new ways to appreciate the ordinary truth of extraordinary moments in a troubled world…[/i]

    Kudos Portman… again i say… kudos!

  9. I am watching this movie now, after putting it off. Not as painful as I expected, in fact, I think it’s modulations of scenography and music are so soothing. Insofar as Natalie Portman, she seems to have a very good understanding of the role and what’s expected of her. In a sense, it is a dramatic rendering of a dramatic production.. although the lines between the ballet and the filmic medium are really not crossed yet. The psychological aspects are presented as odd, but would really be par for the course considering the mis-en-scene..

  10. I was not expecting a “feel good” movie when I watched Black Swan — but, I was also not expecting to be bored. I was hoping for an intense psychological thriller, with well-developed characters and a storyline with at least a little depth. Unfortunately, to me, the characters were shallow and underdeveloped, and the storyline was flat.
    I enjoyed some aspects of the movie, but I definitely won’t watch it again. It was okay — not Oscar-worthy, in my opinion, but worth a watch if you don’t have anything better to do.

  11. I am very much used to complex, dull, not-happy-ending cinema, and I’ve even studied a lot about film, and I didn’t think the movie was good. Nina’s search for perfection was just announced by the character, but I dont think this is reflected in the way the character acts. if she had never mentioned her wish to achieve perfection, no viewer would have sensed that from the character alone. i didnt linke it at all

  12. After reading few of the comments, all of them seem to be lingering between:
    “Oh you don’t get it” it is deeper than what it delivers to the audience or it’s a compete waste of time.

    I can see the “effort” involved in the making of the film and the artistic obsessive compulsive arena in which it is sitting, however, it still remains a hollywood-esque movie. There is nothing worn with that, but it surely remains quite grey. They could have pushed it further, there was no pyscho build up for the audience, so the whole dramatic and hallucinatory state remained inside the film and I didn’t feel it.
    I kept on thinking on movies like Suspiria and the Piano Teacher, that deal with similar content to the one in The Black Swan, but the movie finished and all I saw where references from genres and of course, the beauty of he classical music and ballet aided it to be an enjoyable piece, but director’s emotion/flavour was never to strong. So we just turned the DVD off and that was that.

  13. I was really disappointed in this film. I was expected something dark and full of suspense, instead I sat there bored and waiting for the film to finish. Natalie Portman most definitely did not do all the dance scenes herself, they had a body double who is real dancer do that. The scenes where she does dance are awful. I kept sitting there wondering how I was supposed to believe that someone who is obviously useless at ballet dancing and clearly feels no connection with dancing as an art form had somehow been appointed to a top position in a dance company. All that nonsense about how she could play the white swan well but not the black was just plain annoying. Okay, I know it was for the sake of metaphor, but at least it could have been believable. Overall, I found the film trying hard to be meaningful and full of symbolism, but coming up way short.

    The cliches were terrible, plus the story wasn’t original at all and that was probably the biggest let down. The idea of the tortured, self-mutilating, perfectionistic and sexually repressed but hugely talented artist living in a weird relationship with her control freak mother, and who at the end gives an amazing performance and stabs herself has been done before, and better, in The Piano Teacher. I hated watching that film but it was amazing, and makes this one look like a cheap Hollywood copy.

  14. Great review. The writers are at fault, first of all for creating a too-obvious, cliche story – the minute Cassels (who does indeed shine) explains the story of Swan Lake, any thinking viewer will immediately know how the movie ends. Secondly, there is some justification for some of the sex scenes, but there were 2-3 masturbation scenes and several lesbian scenes between two hot characters who were not lesbian. (These are excused as fantasy/madness sequences, but the only fantasies that seem to be explored are those of the male writers, who’ve probably been waiting years for an opportunity to watch Portman and Kunis naked together.) If you want to make a movie about sex, do so, but don’t pretend to have artistic leanings if a huge chunk of your film is gratuitously exploitative. Moreover, here is no character arc; the main character comes off as pathetic from the start and becomes increasingly pathetic. Finally, people who think that an unhappy ending alone makes a great movie are as guilty of cliche as people who think every movie should have a happy ending. In this particular case, an unhappy ending was inevitable from the start of the film; a happy ending would have made no sense, but it would also have been the only way to make this movie anything other than obvious and banal.

    • I’m NOT so sure the male writers had such a compelling fantasy that they not only wrote a script with lesbian scenes, but also completed their lifelong fantasy by somehow (with all their casting power…) had these specific actresses not only cast, but in agreement to act, and complete the making of this film…

      If you are offended by lesbianism, please refrain from posting your biased perspectives.

      Do not let your prejudices distort the enjoyment of another.

  15. I’m NOT so sure the male writers had such a compelling fantasy that they not only wrote a script with lesbian scenes, but also completed their lifelong fantasy by somehow (with all their casting power…) had these specific actresses not only cast, but in agreement to act, and complete the making of this film…

    If you are offended by lesbianism, please refrain from posting your biased perspectives.

    Do not let your prejudices distort the enjoyment of another.

  16. I just finished watching it with my stepsisters, oddly I understood the whole movie while they didn’t & as I see many people didn’t from the comments I keep reading. well for starters, the main character was schizophrenic.

    All her illusions were just that, in reality she was fighting herself, like her “insane side” under pressure, it all went downhill.

    I personally liked it, it wasn’t so bad. It’s not everyday you get to watch a well thought movie that shows the cruel reality of schizophrenia, as well as a”dark mood” type of movie.
    It makes you think.

    (I would of explain more but it’s 1am here, I got school tomorrow, I just wanted to comment)

  17. Ok where to begin…

    I walked out the pictures and my first thoughts was ‘there is 90 minutes of my life i will never get back’ What an absolute pile of crap!!

    Anyway, i would never recommend this film, but judging by a few peoples reviews they think different. no offence, but i think we must have been watching different films or something, it really was diabolical!!!

    And yes i understood the film, i just didnt appreciate it….

  18. Black Swan feels like Aronofsky saw Suspiria, Perfect Blue(which he owns the rights to), Repulsion, The Machinist and decided he wanted to make a film that Polanski would make if he were trying to make a movie Lynch would make after watching tons of horror films and decided to make an arthouse graphic exploitation flick. Only that Aronofsky isn’t as talented as Polanski or Lynch.

    • As a male, this movie had me sexually charged at the end. Nina’s dramatic transformation into the seductive “black swan” was one of the most exciting scenes in movie history. Judging by the number of Black Swans at Halloween parties this past October, I think many females felt the same way.

  19. Sorry, nothing artistic, simple review. Worst film i have ever seen.

  20. I’ve been watching this movie on and off for a week now… more ‘off’ than ‘on’ … that’s why I still haven’t made it to… The End. Its heavy morbid stuff… not what I’d call entertainment. I think European film makers and actors could have made a decent movie instead of this mess.