Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan (2010)

Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Expectations: Very High. I don’t know why really, I never even saw the trailer. I’ve just got a feeling.


Ingredients:

1 Carrie
1 Suspiria
1 Swan Lake
1/2 Tbsp. Mind-Fuck

Mix well. Serve at room temperature immediately.

All kidding aside, Black Swan is easily one of the top American films of the year. It’s definitely one that will split audiences, with some reveling in the glorious mystery of it all and others wondering when the arthouse invaded their local multiplex. Whichever side of the fence you find yourself on, one thing is certain. Black Swan is sure to get many highly coveted nominations during awards season while actually being good enough to warrant receiving them. Imagine that.

Black Swan tells the story of a ballet company putting on a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a dedicated dancer who practices relentlessly in an effort to secure the starring Swan Queen role. The question is… is mere practice enough? At its heart, Black Swan is a horror film masquerading as an art movie and this duality is why I found the movie so intriguing. Aronofsky successfully walks the line between trash and art here, so skillfully in fact that it’s almost unnoticeable. For instance, was the garment-ripping lesbian scene completely necessary for the plot or is it gratuitous trash? The filmmaker’s choice to keep the nudity on the cutting room floor will be the point that artsy folks champion as the mark that it is “tastefully done.” The scene is also important to the story and the main character for various reasons I won’t disclose.  Despite the accepted justification of the scene, it doesn’t change the fact that a hot-and-heavy lesbian scene between two young, gorgeous actresses was written into a film built atop a basic horror movie framework, which in virtually all other circumstances will most likely be the description of a trashy B-movie. The eternal question “What is Art?” springs to mind, as does an interview quote from director Aronofsky.

“Wrestling some consider the lowest art—if they would even call it art—and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.”

His connection of his previous film The Wrestler and Black Swan is a valid one, and the two films are very kindred spirits in terms of their worlds and leading characters. With both films Aronofsky successfully turns the conventional wisdom of the art form in question on its head, bringing art to wrestling and trash to ballet. The magic of both films is that they also work on the opposite tip and never betray or belittle the mythology and driving spirit of either form of entertainment. In the end, it’s all for our amusement and Aronofsky’s definition of both art forms helps us to view both the trash and the art on an equal playing field. My kind of guy.

In this way, the trashy elements of Black Swan are absolutely necessary to the success of the film. Portman plays a sexually repressed girl who must tap into her sexuality in order to properly dance the part of the Black Swan. As she struggles to wrap her head around what is needed of her in order to pull it off, the audience struggles to figure out what exactly is going on around her and where the film is heading. Brief, subtle glimpses of strange things foreshadow what is to come, but initially they go by so fast that you immediately question if you actually saw what you thought you saw. Just when you convince yourself that it was your imagination, something else pops up. This is very reminiscent of Dario Argento’s obsession with memory and presenting his films in such a structure that the main character and viewer are questioning their memory of something seen early in the film. Along with the dance school vibe of Suspiria, it’s pretty clear to see that somebody enjoys themselves some Argento.

As a horror movie, Black Swan is incredibly taut and successful. I had more scares, jumps and squirm-in-my-seat moments within the runtime of this film than I’ve had in the last few years of horror films combined. Like a snowball gaining speed down a hill, the film gets off to a slow start but eventually picks up a full head of steam as it assaults you from all sides. Not only is the final act jarring in its subject matter, but its pace is so much quicker than the rest of the film that you literally have little time to gain your footing before the rug is pulled out from under you once again. In these tense moments the music swells, with the original score by Clint Mansell seamlessly weaving in and out of the music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. It’s done incredibly well and works wonders at heightening the frightening mood created by Aronofsky’s visuals.

Black Swan is a great movie, made better by careful thought and intense discussion after seeing it. If a modern horror movie ever had a shot at Best Picture, this is it. Highly recommended.

13 comments to Black Swan (2010)

  • Trashy? Indeed, it’s surprising that you are one of the very few to note this aspect of the movie. All this is basically saying is that all Nina needs is a good f*** and everything would be fine. I think the main problem I had with the movie was the fact that it was more a spectacle than an introspective story bent on making one think. Nonetheless, it’s indeed a cinematic experience that needs to be seen. Good review Will!

    • Thanks! It’s definitely designed as a visceral experience instead of an intellectual one, and it really delivers on that. This is also the reason why despite loving it I only gave it 3 1/2, because it succeeds totally as an experience, but no so much in terms of story and character arcs. Which for me furthers connects it to trashy horror movies, and being a fan of such things, I enjoy that.

  • I can’t wait until I see this and can actually weight in on the film. Great review Will!

  • Mike_D

    Great review, Will. This movie was definitely deceptively simple. So simple, to me, that it was almost nothing. Scene by scene, a very visceral (to use your words) experience. Substantially so minimal that I can’t honestly say I got my fill. On a whole, I don’t really know if I’ve received anything at all. The finale was quite an experience, but it could have been the conclusion to almost any story of a young lady. Maybe generic is what I’m really trying to say.

    I think the case of “sandbagging” a genre is quite evident here, but that’s not a legitimate criticism. It is a good movie, but I just can’t reconcile the world class scene-making to the damn near arbitrary story. I’m not sure I was amused on enough levels, let alone entertained.

    Regardless… great review!

    ***
    Regarding Aronofsky himself: It seems the ability of this particular filmmaker is great articulation in his cinema language, but then nothing to say with this horror pic. I happened upon Pi not too long ago and I noticed the same thing. With comparisons to the Wrestler, I think it’s just as close to compare Black Swan to Pi. And along with Pi, a highly articulated execution with a generic as fuck final statement. Bland, really (of course, maybe it was simply to debut work of a young gun makin a name). You call Black Swan part art-house, well Aronofsky represents the American scene well-enough. We got the tools, but nothing to say. Yet, anyways…
    ***
    Thanks for indulging me, yet again.

    • Thanks Mike! Yes it’s definitely light on true substance, but I honestly think I would have enjoyed it less with more depth. It’s just fine the way it is for me. And generally the arthouse film will be full of deep-thought inducing substance, so with Black Swan you’re right to make the connection to America’s lack of things to say in general. This is partly why I enjoyed it so much though, as it represents a horror movie while also satisfying a large number of people that generally disregard horror films. How many horror films usually make major critics Top Ten lists? Not very many, so I enjoy that it is able to achieve that.

      I haven’t seen Pi in about ten years, but I do remember feeling a style over substance vibe. Requiem for a Dream is also like that, as is the Wrestler to a lesser degree. So apparently it’s his thing. I’m not a big fan but I respect his ability to construct films and Black Swan is probably my favorite of his. I haven’t seen his sci-fi movie The Fountain though. Have you?

  • Mike_d

    Yes, I have actually. Its totally ridiculous. More and more I feel like this guy has no idea what he’s doing and putting out a more commercially viable movie with Black Swan was definitely the card to play.

    Having said that, I totally dug The Fountain, but for all the wrong reasons. His Western attempt at Eastern metaphysics is borderline retarded, but obviously very honest. But having a great interest in both Eastern philosophy and serious, ambitious sci-fi, and the ready-made relationship they may have, I had to let this movie have some standing chance. Lemme put it this, I allowed myself to be ok with a buff-ass Hugh Jackman (post X-Men), in freshly pressed wardrobe, do fake Tai Chi to a cosmic backdrop. This is not something I would ever ask anyone to accept, but I will withhold judgement if it will allow this genre to live another day. Let this be a testament to my faith in the value of philisophical Sci-Fi. Hugh Jackman. In Hollywood wardrobe. Doing fake Tai Chi. In front of a crab nebula.

    One day I will bleed for this art.

    • Hahahahaha, wow. You’ve simultaneously made me lose any expectations I had and make me want to watch it more than I ever have before. I know the feeling you express though, willing to accept some bullshit in order for the greater good of the genre, and unfortunately it seems a lot of sci-fi in general is like this.

      His next movie is a Wolverine movie, so I guess the commercial nature of his last couple of movies paid off.

  • A film that totally messes with your mind, and doesn’t let you forget what you are about to witness. Portman’s performance is what deserves an Oscar as well.

  • I did get around to seeing this one finally. It was sitting around the library the last time I was there, and it seemed like a good opportunity to check it out. I can see how this would come to mind when talking about Perfect Blue, but the two films are very different aside from a few surface similarities.

    Black Swan is about a dancer/actress who goes insane trying to tap into the emotions required for her role. Perfect Blue is about a dancer/actress who goes insane wondering if she made the right career move or a horrible mistake. There are plenty of things you could draw a parallel to, but it never reminded me of Perfect Blue while I watched it.

    This one was a bit too slow for me to really get into it, and it seemed a bit too simple. Once it got to the conclusion, nothing was surprising me and it all seemed a bit obvious. I did start enjoying it once the crazy started kicking in towards the end, though. I just wish it had gotten there a bit sooner is all. Perfect Blue got there quicker and went further off the deep end. But with Perfect Blue I also wonder how much I was willing to wait because I knew just how far it would go in the end.

    I can’t call Black Swan a bad film, just not one that worked well for me. There certainly were some good parts in it. I think the biggest difference between the two is that in Perfect Blue the crazy was more than just hallucinations, but that’s all it is in Black Swan. In the end everything weird in this film can just be written off with a “Damn, that bitch is crazy.” It left me wanting something more.

    • I think knowing that it’s similar to Perfect Blue before watching it might have set your expectations incorrectly. When I went to see it, I only knew it was a ballet movie with Natalie Portman that was supposed to be great. So when it added in the horror elements, and she started going nuts, I was so surprised and impressed by it. It’s definitely simple, but it’s like any genre film that way so I don’t hold that against it. Sorry it didn’t work out for you, I love that movie.

      • Well, I don’t regret watching it or anything. I did really enjoy that last half hour or so. It just never impressed me. My complaint is actually the same one I usually have for horror stories: the buildup is too drawn out and not very horrifying. I don’t know why I never find horror to be horrifying, but that’s just the way my brain is wired. (Except that moment when Natalie Portman peels the skin off her finger. That was freaky.)

        It’s a movie I never would have given a second glance normally, so without that comparison I never would have seen it. It was an experience worth having anyway.

        • That skin peeling is probably my favorite moment. I wouldn’t say that Black Swan is particularly horrifying, though, it’s more unsettling than anything else. Like I said before, because you don’t like the tension of horror you should definitely try out the horror comedy genre, specifically Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste or Dead Alive.

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