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. Oh my God, I was shocked by this film. I wasn’t expecting to love it, but, for heaven’s sake, man, it is a derivative jumble of nonsense. Every single character is a walking stereotype, the plot is hackneyed, and virtually every trick the writer/director uses has been done to death for decades. Why would anyone care about the lead character, for instance? She is a paper doll. Her mother is a paper doll. The director… Are you kidding me? Look at a film that is arguably a comparative type: Barton Fink. The characters are interesting, funny, and throughout the surreal journey you are constantly surprised. Swan is predictable, over-stylized pablum. Just one man’s opinion. I honestly nearly walked out. My GF felt the same.

  2. Watched Black Swan last night and i have to say i was surprised by a few of the scenes. I absolutely love Natalie Portman and i think she did a fabulous job in this. Its an interesting, entertaining thriller that deserves to be seen. It isn’t for everyone though, its a love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie and i loved it.

  3. I just saw this last night and was randomly browsing reviews this moring. I don’t usually go around adding comments to reviews, but I gotta say: this review absolutely NAILS it. So much to like about the movie, quite an intense experience watching it, but something is lacking. And I think the reviewer hit on it: a sense of real identification / empathy with Nina. As the reviewer states, we never see her ENJOY anything, especially not the art that she has dedicated her life to. “Crazy to crazier” is exactly right. In spite of that weakness, though, it is still a very impressive, memorable film.

  4. After seeing you gave it 3.5/5, I’m not even gonna waste my time reading the review itself. An abomination. The movie is sheer perfection and to give it the same score as Tron Legacy and *lower* score than Stone is borderline idiotic and not one ounce of objective analyzing and/or reviewing.
    ‘It is still a very impressive, memorable film’, you say at the end. Not making sense at all now. Kofi wrote this, eh? Going to avoid your reviews as of now, good man.

    • Whatever.

  5. I saw this yesterday and do NOT recommend it…because of vial sexual scenes that really were not necessary. This movies red herrings were more like being shot by a stun gun…someones crazy making nightmare! It’s a shame Nina character had no moral backbone! No ADULT and all CHILD and PARENT. Sad movie and extremely confusing! Dartie

  6. I think you meant “vile”. I believe the sex scenes are not “vile” but necessary to show just how “repressed” the Nina character is. It’s a given that this film isn’t meant for children. But I don’t understand your second -to-last- sentence about ADULT, CHILD, PARENT.

  7. If a movie should have a stronger rating than R, let’s rate it appropriately. A lesbian kiss is one thing – soft core porn another. Had the film shown less of that scene, I would give it an A, for depth of intrigue. Portman, though a good performance, seemed to only show 2 levels of her character – disturbed, and enraged. The sweet girl never really seemed to show up. Though the story was compelling and emotional, I found it all ruined by the feeling of disgust for myself for not walking out at that scene. I went to see a good, acclaimed film, not soft core porn. Shame on them. Movie prices are 10+ bucks a shot, $20 after adding a little snack. It’s a shame I got more than I paid for, but didn’t want it.

    • I don’t know where it’s said the character is supposed to be “a sweet girl”. Is it because Nina’s a ballerina?

      Not all ballerina’s are “sweet”. Just like not all cops are crooked (or saints), or that life is fair (I know it isn’t).

      • @ gerry

        When Nina walks into the room and all the paintings are speaking, they’re saying “sweet girl”, “sweet girl” over and over.

        Personally I believe Nina’s life was a parrallel of the story of Swan Lake and that’s where the irony comes in.

        Here’s a girl under a curse, who longs to be free, has a dark side, watches someone else seduce the man she loves, is driven mad, commits suicide and in doing so is finally free.

        Does that sound like Swan Lake or the film, Black Swan?
        Both right?

        • That’s plausible. I saw it when it first came out; before the press frenzy. When I left the theater, I was certain that it was going to be an Oscar contender.I was very gratified to learn “Black Swan” won at the Golden Globes, then nominated for many Oscars (as I predicted it would be). I’ve seen it but once and will probably see it one more time. It’s not an “easy” film to watch because it does focus on the dark side of being human. And that’s what makes it fascinating, because all of us has this dark side deep within us. Black Swan allows the viewer to form their own interpretation as to what this film is all about.

          I posted here very early on. After almost two months of seeing other people’s comments, I find it remarkable how some don’t “get it”. For sure, this is not a “feel good” film as a few thought it would be. Just looking at the poster, the title, or any of the previews should have dismissed that notion very easily. I will say this though; Natilie has a lock as Best Actress and “The King’s Speech” will get Best Picture come Oscar time.

          I don’t like the word “rant”. It implies a frenzied mental state instead of a calm one. To review a movie like this requires some calm and reflective thought, which is kind of difficult given the subject matter of this film. It’s been almost 2 months since I saw it. Think it’s time for me to give it a second shot ( now that I’ve had time to process my first viewing).

          • Natalie best actress? Surely your joking…I just saw this movie last night and was completely dissapointed with her “lack” of emotion i’n this movie, you can have a dark twisted character that you actually care about if an actress plays the part right, but Natalie failed, she ruined what could of been an intriguingly insane character..,

  8. What is the matter with the film producers these days?? I am trying to get my partner to go and see films with me. Each time I hear of a ‘good film’, I get him to go with me. A couple of weeks ago we saw Kings Speech which we both enjoyed. Last night we saw Black Swan, we thought it was very poor. Where have all the ‘feel-good’ film producers gone? During this recession everyone who I know want something to make them laugh and come out of the cinema feeling happy and that they have had value for money. Mama Mia was brilliant! I’m in my 50′s and my partner in his 60′s and we love ‘slap-stick’ comedy. Come on you film people, lighten up and start making great memorable films again. I was very disappointed in Black Swan and it will take a lot to persuade either me or my partner to visit the cinema again for a long time. No wonder they are closing down!!!

    • When did the reviews EVER promise a “feel good” movie? Um… that’s right… never. Don’t watch movies without checking what people say first.

  9. My wife and I saw this film yesterday afternoon. I wish that I had read some of the plot synopsis, and commentary for how the film and plot were presented. We espected an “arty” film, to be sure. The plot was turgid and contrived, but what we did not expect was a film that was clearly pornographic and disgusting.

  10. The combination of Music, drama & images was a perfect mesh of movie perfection.
    Finding fault she is not happy, not interesting, or not oscar worthy is
    ridiculous. Apparently some are low on the intellectual scale.
    The girl (portman) in case I have to explain, is obsessed with her art
    & perfection. This consumes her life. Probably not much time to do other things to make her MORE interesting & happy. HAPPY & INTERESTING were probably not on her agenda. GET IT.
    Sounds like YOU should make the PERFECT movie & the way you think she should be. The happy interesting little ballerin. Then it wouldn,t be
    the emotionally intense movie it was . SORRY.
    Anything less than mesmerizing for her performance is an insult to Portman. I have to give praise to performances by all.
    If you like intense drama this is the movie to see.
    So far I saw it three times. If you can’t feel or identify & understand the torment of Portmans character don’t bother seeing the movie. You just won’t get it. Maybe I’m Dark & uninteresting too. Go see a happy movie!

    • Hi Frank

      I my partner and I ended up not knowing what was supposed to be real or an hallucination. I can see where you are coming from. Everyone to their own taste I maybe old fashioned. On the way out of the cinema I purposely asked others who had just seen the film what they thought to it, they were in the same mind as us and were a bit embarrassed with sex scenes. I’m not an expert in ballet dancing but I thought Portman danced beautifully. The “Black Swan” story and the music was the attraction for us. Hey ho not everyone can like every film and I admit we are difficult to please.

    • Tom (or Jerry) – “Who are you?”
      Nina – “I’m a dancer”
      Tom – “I meant your NAME….”

      That about sums up her self-identity.

  11. brilliant movie, i think its Oscar material, going from crazy to crazier is better than the cliche someone finding their true inner power of darkness and then conquering all, its overused, this is fresh new with brilliant acting a great script awesome camera work and a tense feeling throughout the film i have never experienced in cinema

  12. I’m split down the middle with this movie.

    When the credits rolled, I had chills. It really spooked the hell out of me and her descent into madness was really well done – given the short time constraints. My favourite moment was when she became the black swan.

    On the other hand, did anyone else feel that Nina was a bit ‘off’ to begin with? She was described as a sweet girl, but I never really saw it. I also thought the sex scene was really un-necessary.

    Through out the first half of the movie I was wondering how on Earth NP was nominated for a role. But for the last half I think she was superb!

  13. I saw this film before all the buzz as I am always impressed with Portman’s ability to showcase characters. As we walked out of the theatre, my friends and I, all in entertainment, felt let down by the screenplay. Mostly we felt that the metaphor of Nina’s life vs. the Swans’ was an amazing idea, however the film wrote in the subtext of the metaphor, and then for anyone that didn’t get it, they bashed you over the head with the littoral imagery of the transformation. Totally unnecessary!! I hate going to see an ‘artistic’ film and having the writers, and directors, decide we are all too stupid to get it; so with heavy hands they spell it out for us. Portman was fantastic with her character, but her ability to convey the script honestly and convincingly, does not make it a good script.

  14. Excellent review. I couldn’t agree more. You nailed all the bright spots and weaknesses. And a weak plot/story line are ultimately what make a great film; this one, is not.

  15. Very juvenile. Nina is crazy and so is her mother. I agree with the other comments. Where is Nina’s passion for dance?

  16. Absolutely fantastic. It captured the sense of inevitable madness in the strive for perfection and success beautifully. I was totally mesmerised. Sheer brilliance. And I am a tough target.

    Very disappointed by the homophobic (yes, homophobic) comments here. Embarrassed to watch? Gratuitous? Grow up. Life is not all about innocent and pure, white little princesses all the time. Would you be embarrassed by heterosexual encounters as expression? Probably not.

    • Yes . I share both your enthusiasm for the film and disappointment in the disparaging remarks from those who couldn’t see “the big picture”. It’s almost two months since I saw it ; time for me to give it a second shot. That’s how visceral an experience it was watching this film. Rare indeed is there a movie that can make this film -hardened movie watcher feel this way.

    • Just because someone found the sex scenes uncomfortable doesn’t make them “homophobic.”

      I am SO sick of hearing that.

      I don’t like oysters. They look slimey and completely unappetizing and there’s no way I’d eat one. Does that make me “oysterphobic?”



      • A theory: people who found the sex scene repulsive (or pornographic) may be sexually repressed or inhibited. That’s not necessarily a”good” or “bad” thing. Repression is a matter of degree. Before passing judgment, one should ask “repressed compared to what or who” ?

        I found the sex scene to be erotic, which is quite a cinematic and acting accomplishment because no genitalia was shown. Porn, on the other hand is usually extremely graphic but rarely erotic.

        • Gerry,

          I’ll give you the flip side and say that people who enjoy it may tend to have voyeuristic tendencies. Not saying that’s a fact, just responding to your theory. 8)


            • Gerry,

              While your arguments are very reasoned, I keep seeing veiled references to religion in your comments – is modesty “programmed?” When kids hit puberty and they don’t want their parents walking in on them in the bathroom is that because their parents made them feel guilty about their bodies or is it a natural human reaction? Maybe some people just feel that sex is a private matter between two people and that’s the way it should remain.


              • Viv,

                I’m anything BUT religeous. LOL…please point out where my comments suggest I am ! I AM “spiritual” though, and an observer of human behavior; especially mine. I’m thinking those with strong religous and /or puritanical beliefs would have found this film very unsettling.

                The things you mententioned are usually taught and learned during childhood. Ther’s also the biological element…a classic example of nature vs nurture and the pro/ con arguments that follow.

                We don’t get to “choose” our parents, the country we were born in ,and within that country the vilage/neighboorhood we grew up in. Yet, all three striongly influence our “value system” and serve to act as our “moral compass”. I could go into the topic of human sexuality but don’t think this is the platform for it. I’m sure that those interested could look it up and study at their leisure.

                There’s also the time factor; just looking at the US reveals a gradual shift in “values” among the population at large. Within any given person’s lifetime, drastic/ major changes have occcured. Thirty years ago, there wasn’t the technology available to make a film like Black Swan, or an audiance open minded enough to watch it.

                Today, anyone can BLOG about it(sex) within the confines of their home and feel relatively “safe” doing so. Can’t help but wonder where we as a society will be twenty years from now. LOT’s of changes can occur in that time; not all of it “good”. EVERY change has consequences; usually not immediately apparent.

                • Gerry,

                  As you said, this is not the forum for a discussion like this. :) I didn’t say you were religious – it’s obvious to me you’re not. Saying you are making references to religion (ie. implying that it makes people “sexually repressed”) is not saying you are religious.

                  Best regards,


  17. omg i loved this film it was amazing (deep but amazing) i really felt sorry for nina (natalie portman) in the beggining and then it seemed she cud hold her own the mum tho was creepy werid wow watching nina as she sleeps god scary :S

    • Yes. I found this film to be VERY scary. More so than the majority of “horror films” I’ve watched in my five decades of movie going.

  18. i did find that some of the sex scenes in the film made me feel quite uncombftable in the cinema but i must say i didnt find it scary just jumpy and quite gory in some parts it was the storyline i liked best Nina as a charcter is very complex as a person and i think it highlights the pressure as a ballet dancer for them to be so perfect just not so extreme as to kill yourself :)

  19. Just caught the movie in the UK and thought that did a more than brilliant job as Nina Sayers but the film director falls short of meeting the demands that the film was building to. Like In the dance world out there, the work falls squarely and heavily on the director and not just the actors and this one was a capable film that tried to be more that and did not succeed.

  20. at the end of the day the story line of this film was always going to spark up some arguments especialy with nina and lily but sex is a very open thing in this day and age where as it would be fround upon once apon a time. sex/sexuality is always going to be an ongoing debate.

  21. Thought it was terrible, i kept thinking of Morecombe and Wise all the way through, although I enjoyed the M & W film more!!!

  22. Your review is spot on. I found it increasingly risible she could be so unhinged and no-one would have noticed. In the right (wrong?) hands, this movie could have been a hit Hammer horror flick of the 1970s: a little bit scary but mostly hilarious in a schlocky kind of way. Oscar-worthy? Definitely not. If they win any majors it’ll be a travesty just as it was when Gwyneth Paltrow won best actress for Shakespeare in Love over Cate Blanchett for her star turn as Elizabeth all those years ago.

  23. Humbly, I suggest you go back to the memories of any anorexic person you might have come to know. If you did, you would see the film in another perspective – the lack of depth in Portman’s character has to do with this – it is not shallowness: anorexic people feed their constant void with one single strive, that towards control and perfection. Sadly, no other desire or feeling survives within them. I think director and leading characters quite effectively managed to portray this, and the hurt of it all stayed with me well after the film’s end titles.

  24. It’s as I predicted (and hoped for)!

    Best Actress Oscar for Natalie Portman. Enough said.

    Signing out at 11:21 pm.

  25. Are you kidding me?

    This is going to be studied in Film schools for many years to come.
    Visually and technically – perfect. Acting – top notch.

    There is almost nothing wrong with it – it’s even a very good casual watch.

    I hope this will define Portmans’ and Aronofskys’ careers

  26. There was absolutely nothing uplifting about this movie… I wish someone had told me how awful it was and spared me those two hours of torture.

    • people like you who go to it expecting a happy little movie about a ballerina who becomes a huge star seem to be the only ones rating it down.

    • I’m truly amazed that after three months, people STILL expect an “uplifting” movie. Doesn’t the title, posters, reviews, Golden Globe and Oscar exposure, synopsis, etc strongly suggest otherwise ?


      • I thought so :\
        I went expecting a dark strange movie. And was not disappointed at all.

    • Spot on Jenny!!!

      • It’s your own fault for not reading the summaries online and paying attention to the previews.

        • The mark of a truly great film is when the viewer does not need to read reviews or online summaries, before hand, in order to be captivated by it. One should be able to sit down, knowing absolutely nothing about the plot or style of film making, and be enthralled. This is how I viewed it and I was not impressed. I have to agree with this reviewer and say that the only believable characters were the mother and the director. All the others were one dimensional, at best. Technically brilliant but too thin on plot and character development. Worth seeing, but only once.

          • So, I can just pick up some random book, say si-fi(which I hate) and if it’s “truly” good I’ll love it? No. I need to know a bit about the book before I read it. YES you do need summaries/reviews to know whether you’d like it or not.

    • I agree, this was such a horrible movie, painful to watch, I was worried postman was going to have a stroke being so painfully thin (her neck veins were bulging out with cyst like bumps) awful movie, she should’ve been locked up in an insane asylum and fed. The dance scenes with postman were really bad, I would think they could of made it look like she was an actual dancer. The understudy did a good job with this crap of a movie. Wish I could erase this garbage from my memory, let alone get refunded, losing faith i’n alot of actors to pick scripts anymore.

      • *portman……ugh! No passion i’n her about dance, this movie failed, she was just timid and scared with no substance at all, ugh! Thought mAybe this movie would of been a little bit like “turning point” after seeing previews, but ugh what a disappointment!

        • Maybe this movie could of been intriguing if a different actress was cast for the main role! I think Portman ruined the movie. (Keira knightly maybe) just because the main character was sick and insane, a better actress could of pulled it off, if she had some sort of connection with the audience.

      • @Amanda at least get Natalie Portman’s name correct..

    • I totally agree. Nothing in the least redeeming or of quality in this film.

  27. After reading this review I am wondering whether or not this reviewer has ever actually been an artist. The comment that Natalie Portman’s character is unbelievable because she doesn’t seem to enjoy what she is doing and therefore it does not seem logical that she would go to such lengths is a reflection of the lack of understanding on the part of the reviewer. Performers at that level are so consumed with trying to be the best that they can possibly be that often times they do lost the joy of performing in their pursuit of perfection. Portman’s character is a stunningly accurate portrayal of what happens when a performer becomes devoted to their craft. The lack of believability is not a failure on Portman’s part but rather a lack of understanding on the reviewers part. Portman’s acting is spot on and truly captures the artist who becomes so obsessed with being the best they they lose themselves in the process.

    • *applauds* You got it.

    • Natalie Portman got all this adulation just because she worked to learn the ballet steps to do the role. Big deal. It doesn’t make her a better actress. She is totally cold. She is no Jodie Foster. Could Portman have been in “The Accused”? No, because she just doesn’t stir any warmth. Her interviews all present as such a perfectionist: she might to better to let go a little. with all the floods of tears in Black Swan I never felt any emotion.
      This was an awful movie, but Oscar pictures often are. And just because an actor works hard to take on a role doesn’t mean they can “bring it”

    • I agree with you, Nina. And don’t forget “The Wrestler” and “Pi”. Aronofsky is four for four in my opinion.

      Too bad there can be only ONE “Best Picture”, otherwise “Black Swan” would have won that too !

  28. Dark, intense, strange…not for everyone but if you like those three, it’s for you.