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)

Get our free email alerts on the topics and author of this article:


Post a Comment

GravatarWant to change your avatar?
Go to and upload your own (we'll wait)!

 Rules: No profanity or personal attacks.
 Use a valid email address or risk being banned from commenting.

If your comment doesn't show up immediately, it may have been flagged for moderation. Please try refreshing the page first, then drop us a note and we'll retrieve it. Keep in mind that we do not allow external links in the comments.

  1. As a daughter of someone suffering from mental illness, I thought this film was heartbreakingly beautiful. I deeply felt for the character of Nina and thought the film a sensitive portrayal of someone suffering from a mental illness. I have watched my mother go through bouts where there is no dividing line between what is real and what is not. Can you say for certain which scenes in the movie really happened, which ones Nina completely hallucinated, or which ones were a mixture of the two?

    I can see why some viewers cannot relate to such a character, in the exact same way that I can see many people turn their backs or not want to deal with people we label as crazy. My guess is that some viewers get frustrated with Nina in the movie. Inevitably, they lose concern for the character as she spirals down her dark path. In this and other aspects of Black Swan, I feel that art has imitated life in a way that I can only describe as “perfect”.

  2. An entertaining depiction of the artist’s ultimate struggle to find a balance between control and abandonment. A couple of criticisms I have is that, like many other films, it is an older male character (with the exception of the lesbian scene) who teaches the young girl to embrace her passion. The other criticism is that the older female character’s (retired dancer) validity as a woman was dependent on the male choreographer’s approval or rejection of her.

    We need a few younger producers in Hollywood with fresh viewpoints about male/female relationships.

  3. This is an incredible soul searching film that shows the painful road to perfection. Natalie Portman deserves an Oscar for her portrayal. It is easy to extend this well made film to the competitive world we live on. Nina’s insecurity bundled with her psychological instability makes you wonder about our own demons and dreams of success. I have to agree that it is a film that I am not looking to see again, but that in itself shows how the director was able to convey the message of pain and self destruction that we all want to avoid in our daily lives.

  4. For the first time, I found a review that pointed out what I couldn’t put my finger on. After watching the movie, I was left feeling there was something lacking. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment about the film and the acting. Vincent Cassel does steal the scenes and Portman doesn’t arch. She can definitely be compared to her character in Star Wars and I felt played it too meek-even when she started getting more violent. I also agree that it’s beautifully shot and some really interesting moments and points, but still just misses the bulls-eye…just

  5. It was a good movie and is well presented. One of his best yet but i was expecting more from portman given she’s expected to win an Oscar. Her character is predictable and I kept wondering how she was going to die. I wish there was a better explanation to the strange things aside from the fact she was crazy and delusional. Yes I know people that have similar illnesses and self destruct. I did enjoy it but I will be surprised if it wins a major academy award except for the directing

  6. Great film, Full of over the top emotion.


    • Your response to the review is absolutely correct. Once again Hollywood pats itself on the back for a movie that is a themeless, overpacked, yet somehow still dull and exploitative mishmash of styles. The most hilarious thing is how they present Cassel’s character as exploitative and sleazy while the writer and director here are no better than him. How many times does this repressed girl need to masturbate before WE GET IT? How many times do we need to see two NON-LESBIAN characters having sex before we realize that this is a movie for little boys pulling at their weenies and people who wouldn’t know art if it came into their houses and hauled down their velvet Elvis painting? (PS I’ve worked with real mentally ill people, by the way, and this movie is as big an insult to them as it is to women and real filmmakers – hell, real artists of any kind). There is NOTHING original or interesting about it. As soon as Cassels told the story of Swan Lake, I knew how this piece of dreck was going to end. It’s well-acted, but a well-cooked chocolate fish is still a chocolate fish. Thanks for not jumping on the bandwagon.

  8. I’m pretty sure your review is cliched.

    • Allisha,

      Thanks for adding so much to the conversation/analysis.

      Best regards,


  9. Wow. What a tainted review… This portrait of a ballerina’s descent into madness was stark, nuanced, and well written and staged. You need to get over yourself.

  10. Wasted $12 on this movie tonight. I love Nat, and the Swan Lake… but surprisingly, this movie fell flat for me (except for the transformation part).

  11. I completely agree with your review. after watching this film something just didn’t sit right with me…I thought about it…and it occurred to me that while the film was beautifully made, it lacked a certain originality in the themes it was trying to get across. The characters seemed a tad predictable and cardboard to me. was it really NPs fault? i dont believe so but that’s just my opinion.

    • I agree with some of the things that the review points out.

      A few hours ago, my friend and I watched this movie to treat ourselves, since it was a friday night and we had finished a AP chem test. We had heard good reviews on this movie and thought it would be really good; however, from a high school junior perspective, it wasn’t the best movie we had watched nor was it a relaxing movie.

      On the other hand, we agreed the troubles that Portman shows within her character is very realistic. We can relate to the pressure that she is bestowed with, such as being the perfect girl that her mother emphasizes, and her problem with a slow progression of anorexia, portrays the conflicts that most dancers, models, and teenage girls have trouble with.

      Maybe it is because of the age, but for me and my friend, we personally thought inception was a better movie than Black Swan. We also felt that the movie was kind of rushed not being able to cover the full aspect of the storyline.

  12. I love it. Enough said. High expectations lead to disappointments that’s all I can say. This movie is one of the best I’ve seen.

  13. I just got back from the theatre and while I really liked it, there was just something “missing/not right” which stopped me from loving it.

    As a female in a competitive sport with dominant males as the leaders of industry, I can easily say that Nina was a great character to show the internal/ external stresses and how easy it is to lose touch with reality in the pursuit of recognition. Her mom supported that as the classic overbearing enabler and Thomas was absolutely brilliant! It’s something I see every competition and yes, I’ve seen girls mentally breakdown (maybe not to this extent but pretty darn close).

    The Lilly character I felt was a little over the top and could have been a bit more natural. So could the depiction of Nina going crazy, there was no build up, it was just *boom* she’s full blow nuts.

    Overall I would probably give it a 4/5; it’s a movie I’ll still be processing for a little while.

    Also a warning that there are some very sexual moments that might be a little uncomfortable if watching the movie with your mom. I could have used that warning 4 hours ago lol

  14. “Paranoid schizophrenia is one of several types of schizophrenia, a chronic mental illness in which a person loses touch with reality (psychosis). The classic features of paranoid schizophrenia are having delusions and hearing things that aren’t real.

    With paranoid schizophrenia, your ability to think and function in daily life may be better than with other types of schizophrenia. You may not have as many problems with memory, concentration or dulled emotions. Still, paranoid schizophrenia is a serious, lifelong condition that can lead to many complications, including suicidal behavior.”

    With effective treatment, you can manage the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and work toward leading a happier, healthier life.

    100% agree, I don’t connect well with paranoid schizophrenics.

    • My mom was a paroinoid shizopherenic. She committed suicide when I was 13. What I can remember about her when she was “lucid” was moments of brilliance. Having personally witnessed her “craziness” when she had her “episodes” caused me to feel much shame, anger and embarasssment toward my mom.

      So, I can understand at a visceral level how you “don’t connect well with paronoid shizophrenics”. But look at it from the shizaphenic’s point of view. They struggle continuously to “connect” with us “normal people”. I would imagine that my mom experienced similar moments of terror. Perhaps that’s why I was so “scared” watching this film. Art imitates life.

      • But that’s exactly the point. The movie doesn’t ask us to look from a schizophrenic’s point of view. The entire movie tries to be vague on whether she is has mental health problems or not. That vagueness leaves the audience constantly questioning the motivations of every character, including the main one. I found myself bored at what was happening because there were no people for me to connect to so I did not care about what they did.

        Condolences about your mother, I’m sure her story would make a more fascinating one than Black Swan.

      • Sorry about your Mom Gerry. I prayed for her :-)

  15. I was very disappointed by the Black Swan. I felt all the elements of a great film were present, but, sadly, cheap tricks (in-your-face violence + sex + jumps = art(?)) and over simplification ruined it all.

    First, I don’t think close ups of bloody toes, fingers, nails, etc. are good directing. It’s a lame, over used, cheap trick that does not add anything to a movie beside making it unpleasant to watch. Similarly, the “jumps” were unnecessary and, really, how cheap can you get with those. Likewise, all the sex scenes were completely unecessary (as a guy I don’t mind them so much, but they are symptomatic). I felt like I was watching I Know What You Did Last Summer XXXIV, not a good movie.

    Second, I did not enjoy the simplified storyline. The black/white swan duality was really far too simple and impossible to believe. Who seriously believes this “you are a perfect white but need to learn how to be black” thing? And why did they have to explain it 6 or 7 times? We’re not that stupid, and I would have preferred her simple ambition to carry her rather than this simplistic “plot”.

    In summary: I liked the “is she crazy or not” bit, as well as the lingering doubt about what was real and what was imagined. I disliked the cheap violence, sex, and jumps. These lame sub-HBO tricks wrecked a story with a great potential, and truly talented actors.

  16. I was very dissappointed with this movie. As a ballerina myself, I thought Black Swan was way too sick, dark and sexual, and there should have been some sort of fore-warning about the sexual scenes. The majority of ballerinas in the world are young girls. There are only a handfull of adult ballerinas that can handle what this movie had to dish out. Personally I chose to watch this movie because it was about a ballerina, not because I wanted to see an uncesssary sexual encounter between two girls. It was very uncomfortable to watch this movie with my husband beside me, telling him to close his eyes. The overall theme of this movie is telling young innocent ballerinas that in order to dance with passion and freedom you have to be sexually active. THAT IS WRONG.

    • You were warned at the very BEGINING of the movie and by ALL trailers. It said rated R for SEXUAL CONTENT.

  17. Stephanie, you miss the point of the movie. This is not directed to point fingers to ballet dancers; this story is about mental illness and obsession with perfection. Your comment
    about the sexual encounter makes no sense. The encounter was well publicized, and to me was not the center of the picture. You should not go to see the movie if you feel that you’re going to be offended.

  18. I couldn’t agree with you more! I truly don’t understand how anyone could love this film. It tries to be shocking but doesn’t deliver because it has all been done before. Natalie’s character is poorly developed. I think there are several actresses out there who could’ve done as good if not a better job. I like her, but this wasn’t her most impressive performance (other than the dancing). Overall, the stroy was quite boring and the dialogue was extremely simple. I’m tired of people saying that if you didn’t enjoy this film then you don’t “get it” or you “don’t appreciate the art”. I usually love artisitic and different movies, even the dark ones, but this one didn’t do it for me.

  19. I agree with some of the things that the review points out.

    A few hours ago, my friend and I watched this movie to treat ourselves, since it was a friday night and we had finished a AP chem test. We had heard good reviews on this movie and thought it would be really good; however, from a high school junior perspective, it wasn’t the best movie we had watched nor was it a relaxing movie.

    On the other hand, we agreed the troubles that Portman shows within her character is very realistic. We can relate to the pressure that she is bestowed with, such as being the perfect girl that her mother emphasizes, and her problem with a slow progression of anorexia, portrays the conflicts that most dancers, models, and teenage girls have trouble with.

    Maybe it is because of the age, but for me and my friend, we personally thought inception was a better movie than Black Swan. We also felt that the movie was kind of rushed not being able to cover the full aspect of the storyline.

    • At last !!! Someone my age who “gets it”. That still makes us in the minority though. I first posted here about a week ago. Since then, I’ve counted about 3 (including you Lili )that yhought highly of this film. I think Natilie Portman will win Best Actress at the Oscars (I predicted she would at least be nominated and I was correct).

    • I could not agree more. well said and to the point.I am only 27 but I feel that I completely get it. It is truly the first psych-thriller that I walked out of thinking that “I absolutely just loved the artistic journey”. I didn’t care about any questions that I was left with. Oh they popped into my head but I didn’t care. In the past I would never have said that about any movie or anything else for that matter. As with most of these movies most want everything to connect or to maybe have some simplistic interpretation that they can relate to.

      I am sure that most ballerinas will not like this movie simply because of their keen eye for the technicalities of their profession. Some probably even went to watch it thinking that the was actually about physical ballet. I loved this movie because I feel that this director captured what it is that people see when they watch ballet (I see skinny people jumping around the stage lol). So many people see mo much more into the depth of the char actors and story and that is what I feel he gave me in the form of film. I loved it

    • Ug, I so don’t get your thinking.

    • Here’s where I find your logic (and the logic of thousands of people who agree with you) to be in error:

      I actually know what it is to pursue an artistic passion and how hellish it can be. But Nina is not a great or insightful artists – she’s not a natural like Mila Kunis’ character. Nina is an OK artist who suffers because she’s not a great one like she wants to be.

      Call me an elitist but I don’t buy this concept of “the plight of mediocrity” that this film highlighted. I’m not moved by this film because I’m not moved by people who only have talent up to a point but cry because they want more instead of learning to accept what they do have. In fact, I find that outlook to be a self-generated cause of suffering that I have zero sympathy for.

      Not to insult anyone but I really question the skills of those who walk away from this film on “team Nina.”

      • I hear what you’re saying. But I don’t agree that the film constantly highlights a plight of mediocrity, it’s quite the opposite. It’s referred to multiple times that Nina is a brilliant dancer and “often perfect” (as Thomas says about the previous top-tier-but-now-”too-old” dancer, Beth, and can easily be taken as a sly comment about Nina). She is always striving for perfection and on a technical level achieves it with her dancing. But it frustrates, nae haunts, her that that is not what Thomas and the role calls for as “perfect.” She strives so much to get every move right but “never loses herself,” never enough to be just as much the black swan as the white. It’s ironic that she loses herself in OTHER ways, if only in her mind.

        As far as why I got so much out of the film emotionally, it was the desperation of her plight to be what she was told was needed from her by her teacher, less vocally by her other dancers and, obviously, by her controlling mother.

        As a whole what I love most about the film is the sheer madness of it, the off-balance nature of it that fills me, for one, with dread that mirrors (no pun intended :P) the descent into madness of Nina. The fact that the film manages to be strange, often downright crazy, in a way that’s very uncomfortable at times but still makes me care about the main character makes it, in my books, a winner.

        And I find the technical wizardry and direction employed – all that stuff there that can only be seen/appreciated by seeing it multiple times and looking deeper and deeper – dazzling. The haunting music; the effects that blend so seamlessly you often question whether you really saw something at all (putting you half-way in the mindset of Nina); and the sheer boldness of Aronofsky’s direction, uncompromising, visceral.

        All of that (and more) is why I loved the film and cared enough about it to see it not just once but three times. I guess overall I can’t pin down any one thing that caused me to “dig it” so much, just something about it hooked me (I could say that about many of the films I loved, for example those by David Lynch).

      • Kofi,

        I wasn’t impressed with your comments about Tom Cruise not being an A list actor, and I actually just happened to stumble across this so-called “review” you gave. I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt on the Tom Cruise thing, but this “review” confirms for me that you don’t really know what you’re talking about. The movie isn’t about the “plight of mediocrity” or trying to convince the audience that Nina is a wonderful person who deserves to be lead dancer, despite how much you actually know “what it is to pursue an artistic passion and how hellish it can be.” It’s about, among many other things, her metamorphasis into the black swan which ultimately brings about her own destruction. The fact that you “don’t like” Nina’s character isn’t really relevant and isn’t really a reason to not think this is a good movie. I don’t really understand how you didn’t find her character intriguing or didn’t find the movie as providing a “moving or interesting story.” Nina is actually one of the most fascinating screen characters in the past 20 years, and it’s one of the most original stories in recent memory. It’s pretty clear you watched this movie expecting a particular genre of film and a particular “cookie cutter” story, and that’s not what you got, so you go confused and didn’t like it. Just fyi, one of the reasons why you think the movie is a little bit thriller, a little bit noir, a little bit horror, is because it is all those things. It doesn’t fit neatly into any particular category, which is one of the reasons why it’s such a great movie. It’s original, you don’t know what’s going to happen next, and you can’t put a tag on it. I know it’s simpler for some people if they can just judge a movie based on what it is: horror, comedy, drama, etc. But Aronofsky has a tad more respect for his audience and is a slightly better filmmaker than most. I’m shocked at this review. Shocked that they actually let you write reviews on this site.

  20. I agree with Lili and Gerry. This movie also brings small glimpse of the incredible competitive world we live on and the struggle to survive under those circumstances. Maybe some of our reviewers still too young and inexperience to see the message conveyed by this movie.

  21. Sorry Kofi, but this film deserves every Oscar it’s nominated for IMO. Loved it.

  22. I saw it last night, and don’t get it.

    I hated the photography, the jerky, bumpy camera work made me motion sick most of the way through the film.

    The story line fell short had a lot of holes and was very predictable.

    All I could keep thinking was this is 2 hours of my life I will never get back.


    • Totally agree re the 2 hrs.

  23. No one hit on the obvious truth: the film, while well-made, was about demonic influence. You have Nina, who lives in a fear mind-set inviting in all of these negative (demonic) influences into her life and the plot is her letting them in more and more, thinking that she’s doing something positive for herself in terms of her role in the ballet.

    Everyone on here is talking about the psychological thriller aspect and that’s fine, but realize that there is such a thing as good and evil in this world and the reason her struggles ring true to the viewer is because we all go through it every day (voices in our head that try to sway us one way or another). Of course, the struggle is exaggerated a lot more and dramatized for the big screen.

    My beef with the film, though, is that it espouses a dangerous idea. That we are somehow different than our base desires (reptilian brain) and that we have to totally allow them to be the boss of us if we want success. We all have base desires, but we shouldn’t be afraid of them. It’s a matter of not letting them rule us, making them constructive instead of destructive (i.e. marriage instead of one-night stands, political activism instead of terrorism) and always putting God first.

    I also didn’t like the film’s portrayal of what a ‘good girl’ is supposed to be. In fact, they have the whole thing flipped. Nina, being fear-based, was the one who was more evil and reptilian and Lilly, being more love-based, was the ‘good’ one (at least when she wasn’t dropping E).