Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan
Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
Black Swan (2010)
Ever since Darren Aronofsky hit it big with “Requiem for a Dream” and his masterpiece, “The Fountain,” he has been a director to watch out for. Most of his films contain scenes that are best described as simply baffling, but the benefit from these is that they create fascinating discussion. His latest, “Black Swan,” begins in a seemingly normal reality, but by the end, we’re not quite sure what’s really happened and what only appears to have happened.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina in a New York ballet company that is run by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Their group is preparing to put on a reimagining of one of the most famous ballets of all time, “Swan Lake,” with every female vying for the lead of the Swan Queen. The part demands flawless precision as well as enough emotional attachment to become lost in the role. Thomas believes Nina to be the best choice for the part, which excites her, but greatly annoys the former star of the company, Beth (Winona Ryder).
Out of nowhere comes another young ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis), who quickly becomes friends with Nina. As Nina continues to prepare for the role, her life becomes more and more difficult. Not only is her mother (Barbara Hershey) being way too overprotective of her, she also begins to feel like Lily is trying to take the part away from her. There are also signs that Nina may be throwing too much of herself into the role as fantasy and reality begin to merge, making it hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
“Black Swan” has already been receiving enormous critical praise from multiple places, and while it wasn’t quite as good as it was being out to be, it remains an interesting film with several things to like about it. The main thing working against the film is sort of a mixture of its pacing and the storyline of the first two acts. These two acts are mainly used to build up everything necessary for the effectiveness of the final act, but in the process, not much happens. They don’t exactly get boring, but there is eventually an urge for something to move the plot forward.
While that stops the films from transcending into greatness, it does lead into one of the most interesting things about the film: its structure. The first act, as mentioned earlier, begins with everything normal. Nina tries to get the role, and eventually does. This acts as a major turning point in the film, because from here on, nothing is the same for her again.
Now, to understand the significance of the structure, you have to know a little about “Swan Lake.” We are given a quick summary during the course of the film. It’s basically about a woman who is turned into a white swan. In order to break the spell, she and a prince must fall in love, but before that happens, a black swan steals the love of the prince. That’s enough of the story to get the gist of it.
So, Nina has replaced Beth, and now Nina believes Lily is looking to replace her. Thomas also seemed to have a special relationship with Beth and has now transferred his attention to Nina. From her point of view, this could be seen as a black swan replacing a white swan, and could be something that could possibly happen again. On the surface, act two appears to be the start of a simple backstage rivalry, while underneath we see reality and fantasy imitating art for Nina. Does she really have something to worry about, or is she simply taking Thomas’s advice about losing herself in the role way too seriously?
All of this comes to a head in the third act, which is the best and most engaging part of the film. I’m not going to go into any details, but I just want to mention that this act had a fascinating composition all its own. It became hard to tell if the filmmakers were going for a sense of seriousness, a sense of camp, or perhaps even a bit of both. It could certainly be seen either way. Parts of it will make you gasp, laugh, or possibly just stare in confusion.
What makes this last section particularly effective is Aronofsky’s direction. He’s already proven that he’s great at putting together incredibly surreal scenes, but in his other films, you can usually tell right away if it’s really happening or not. With “Black Swan,” the break with reality starts that way, but as it works its way through act three, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish the fine line between the two.
It would have been interesting to see how great the film would have been if the effectiveness of the third act had been spread over much more of the film. It’s understandable that they need time to build up to where Nina’s reality starts to come undone, but it’s never a good idea to leave your audience waiting too long. Luckily, those two acts still end up contributing to a fascinating structure that leads up to a bizarre and engrossing finish that will once again lead to some intriguing discussion. In that area, among others, Aronofsky has remained positively consistent. 3/4 stars.
I think the thing that drew me into the movie more than anything was the music. The soundtrack set the the mood, the atmosphere perfectly throughout the entire movie and set the tone perfectly for what Natalie Portman was experiencing. She plays a ballerina who's trying to portray both the Swan Princess and the Black Swan in the famous tragic ballet Swan Lake. Portman portrays the ballerina perfectly in that you can tell she's wants to be able to play both ballerina roles - the way the ballet's director wants her to, but doesn't quite know how to handle the pressure of both roles, particularly the Black Swan. Darren Aranofsky does an excellent job of portraying how her paranoia is growing, getting the viewers into her psyche. Along for the ride were Vincent Cassel as the ballet's director, Mila Kunis as a possible rival, and Winona Ryder as an aging ballerina forced into retirement and replaced by Portman. This movie is dark, twisted, and plays with your mind as to what is real and what is Portman's paranoia. It's a great psychological ride.
Step Up Goes Ballet for Intellectuals
I find this movie grossly overrated.
Aronofsky creates tension primarily by confusing the audience with audiovisual (special)effects. The plot itself is rather simple and reminds of other ballet films such as "The Red Shoes" (1948) or "Center Stage" (2000). The film further employs a range of weak cliches such as the dressing room cat fights, the womanizing French choreographer or the the careless, booze drinking, drug using, cheese burger eating antagonist who misleads the fragile, virginal main character.
If it weren't for the powerful music (which btw is exclusively by Tschaikowsky and therefore suggests itself, since the original ballet piece was written for his music) and the horrifying visual effects, we would be left with nothing but a story about a ballerina who ends up being crushed by a too challenging role, since all the other characters remain underdeveloped and one-dimensional.
Natalie Portman doubtlessly delivers a brilliant performance. But her character Nina eventually fails, even if she's applauded by the ballet audience, her peers and the choreographer ends up calling her 'my little princess', which couln't be cheesier. Fact is, she fell in the first act, which disqualifies her as a dancer. And more importantly, she was only able to deliver one performance, by shanking herself to probable death.
In the end, the audience remains confused but happy, because 90 percent of the world's movie critics and film industry lobbyists gave it an outstanding review and everyone opposed probably just didn't get it...
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