Year of Release: 2010 Directed by Darren Aranofsky. Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder.
“We all know the story. The innocent young girl is turned into a swan by an evil dark lord. In order to break the spell she needs the prince to fall in love with her. Before he can profess his love; however, he is seduced by her evil twin, the black swan. The heartbroken white swan then throws herself off a cliff.” So ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) informs his company of aspiring ballerinas. One of them will be cast in the dual role of the white swan and the black swan in the upcoming production of Swan Lake.
Nina (Natalie Portman) has wanted that role her entire life. The film opens with a dream of hers in which she is playing the swan queen. She happily relates the dream to her mother (Barbara Hershey) in a state of contented bliss, not caring whether or not her mother is listening. When Nina fears she botched her audition, she goes and apologizes to Thomas. As to be expected from the title, Nina’s extreme level of devotion to ballet and this role is an obsession that threatens to destroy her like the black swan destroys the white swan.
The concept for this film is brilliant: a ballerina obsessively devoted to her craft threatens to destroy her life in a parallel to her greatest dream. If it had been properly handled, Black Swan could have easily been the best picture of 2010. Some of my favorite genres of film are psychological thriller, tragic cautionary tale, and surreal dreamlike fantasy. Although it wants to be all three, Black Swan ultimately does not succeed as any.
Nina is clearly supposed to be the innocent, pure white swan. She is twenty-eight and lives alone with her mother, whom she calls “Mommy.” “Mommy” tucks her into bed each night and winds a ballerina music box for her to fall asleep to. Nina’s bedroom is decorated with pink swirly wallpaper and her childhood stuffed animals. She is finger-fed, clothed, and bathed by her mother. Aronofsky even focuses the camera on Nina’s pink undergarments. However, Nina is an immature, obsessive perfectionist who is in no way innocent of the ballet world. Whether her behavior is from her own choices, her mother’s babying of her, or a combination thereof is never made clear. The filmmakers do not seem to understand there is a difference between immaturity and innocence, selfish oblivion and genuine wonder.
Nina has practiced her ballet to perfection, but she still believes she is not good enough and could be better. “I want to be perfect,” she tells her colleagues. This perfectionism drives her to many acts of desperation, many of which may or may not be hallucinations. Is she turning into the black swan? Is her life in danger? Or is it all in her mind? The film leaves that decision to the viewer.
Before I continue, I must pause and give the film its due. The blurring of fantasy and reality works very well, with no breaks between an actual event and Nina’s fantasies that her body is metamorphosing into the black swan. Aronofsky’s direction – the over the shoulder tracking shots in particular – terrifically place the viewer right in the center of Nina’s nightmare. Natalie Portman perfectly hits all the marks the script allows her as Nina. And Clint Mansell’s score perfectly builds on the Tchaikovsky while creating an unstable atmosphere. All of this, however; only serves to make the rest of the film even more unbearable.
The biggest problem is that the characters are undeveloped, one-dimensional caricatures. Nina’s perfectionism is manifest in the very first scene along with symptoms of insanity. She is never set up as a protagonist with a fault that destroys her; she *is* her obsession. Opening the film with her dreaming that she is perfectly performing Swan Lake, immediately followed by a scene of her discovering swan feathers beginning to grow out of her back destroys any sense of suspense or progression that the film could have had. It would be like opening The Shining with Jack chasing Danny through the hedge maze. It causes the film to fail both as a cautionary tale and as a psychological thriller.
Secondly, Mommy (Barbara Hershey) is one of the most absurd caricatures I’ve ever seen. As written, there are only two ways the character could work. One: Terry Jones plays her in drag while yelling Nina is not the swan queen, but a very naughty girl. Two: in her best over the top Faye Dunaway impression Hershey screams, “No wire hangers, ever!”
As several detractors of the film noted three years ago, the only actor who is given an actual human being to play is Mila Kunis, and that is painfully true. However, I might say Winona Ryder almost portrays a believable character. (As an interesting piece of film history, after Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, Portman did replace Ryder as the Gothic teen girl in Tim Burton films for Mars Attacks, which I find more fascinating than this film.)
In a nutshell what is wrong with this film is that it fluctuates between the obsessive perfection of the white swan with its technically flawless elements and the unhinged destruction of the black swan with its over the top characters, never giving the viewer anything to draw him in.
Content Advisory: Graphic sexual content including a lesbian encounter, masturbation, groping, and intercourse; obscene language; partial nudity; gory disturbing images; and brief drug use. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: D+