Review: Black Swan (TIFF)

PLOT: The mind of a driven New York ballerina (Natalie Portman) begins to unravel after she gets cast in a revival of SWAN LAKE by a tyrannical director (Vincent Cassel).

REVIEW: Watching BLACK SWAN was an excruciating experience for me, and I mean that in a good way. Darren Aronofsky is a master at making his audience squirm, and this is just as cringe-worthy as another one of his triumphs, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. The reason I found it to be such a trial is that Aronofsky seems to have a direct pipeline into my nightmares, and the decent into madness experienced by Portman in this resonated deeply for me on many levels- which is a frightening thing.

Now, before I get into BLACK SWAN too much, I advise anyone who hasn’t seen the trailer to avoid it like the plague. As effective as it is, it gives away far too much of the film, and the best way to see this is to view it cold. Some have called it a variation on the Powell/Pressburger classic THE RED SHOES, and it does indeed share many similarities. This is especially true of Vincent Cassel’s tyrannical maestro, who seems lifted right out of that film. However, BLACK SWAN is it’s own beast, and in many ways it perfectly compliments his last film, THE WRESTLER- something which has been noticed by a lot of the critics who saw this at Telluride and Venice.

Like that film, this is the story of an athlete (in this case a ballerina) who’s pushed her body to it’s breaking point trying to achieve perfection in her craft. In her world, failure is not an option, as she knows nothing else, and if she can’t dance, she might as well be dead. In someways she’s actually worse off than Rourke in that film, as it’s obvious that she’s a completely unhinged young woman, completely infantilized by her mother (Barbara Hershey), who wants to see her daughter succeed in the way she hasn’t. To that effect, Portman’s character is very much a child, inhabiting the body of a grown, sexually desirable woman.

She’s able to arouse desire in both her director, and even a fellow dancer, played by Mila Kunis, who’s essentially her dark doppelganger. One gets the idea that Portman’s even playing a virgin, and she only begins to experiment sexually when she meets this woman, who’s aggressive in all the ways she isn’t. Regarding the sex scene between Kunis, & Portman- yes, it’s there, but it’s done in a tame way, so don’t go in expecting BOUND fellas’, as that ain’t gonna happen.

I also should point out that BLACK SWAN isn’t really the horror film it’s being marketed as, although it’s more frightening than any true horror film I’ve seen in the last little while. The reason it disturbed me so much is that it demonstrated that more than any outside force, we are the ones that destroy ourselves. In an extremely difficult role, Portman gives what may be her best performance to date, and it would be a sin if she’s doesn’t win best actress at the Oscars this year.

She’s absolutely incredible, and this will be the film that establishes her as THE actress of her generation. She’s literally in every scene of the film, and she’s so commanding that her performance will haunt you as much as it did me. Aronofsky’s one director who really knows how to pull out the most from his performers, and what REQUIEM did for Ellen Burstyn, WRESTLER did for Mickey Rourke, BLACK SWAN does for Portman.

It’ll be interesting to see if the public is able to enjoy BLACK SWAN, as it’s certainly a difficult film. One thing’s for sure, all the readers who’ve supported Aronofsky from day one will adore this, as it’s as good as anything he’s ever done. It’s incredible.

Review: Black Swan (TIFF)




About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.