Black Swan * * *

Genre: Thriller 

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writers: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin

Cast: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

Running Length: 107 minutes

Synopsis: Nina Sawyer (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose entire life revolves around dance. She still lives with her obsessive and oppressive former ballerina mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), who smothers her with attention and control. When the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina becomes his first choice. However, newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) is a potential threat as Leroy is impressed with her as well. Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan and the Black Swan, and whilst the innocent Nina is a perfect White Swan, the bohemian Lily is the perfect personification of the Black Swan. As Nina struggles to expand her abilities to become both Swans, she gets in touch with her dark side, but this is not without consequences.  

Review: If your purpose of watching a movie is to relax and enjoy yourself, Black Swan should definitely stay off your to-watch list. This is an intense psychological thriller that makes for largely uneasy viewing, since the film is essentially about a young ballerina who descends into madness. Aronofsky may have moved from the more violent world of wrestling to the seemingly more docile art form of ballet, but the film suggests that high art may just be as much of a bloodsport. For those who have the stomach for it, however, will find that Black Swan boasts a number of excellent performances, even if the film itself lacks a little finesse and subtlety.

As the film is told from the perspective of Nina, it’s a fractured take on reality, and the lines between her troubled imagination and the real world are blurred considerably. Aronofsky is intentionally oblique when crossing between the two realities, and this does add an interesting dimension to the film. The audience is left guessing about what is real and what isn’t, and even the conclusion of the film is somewhat open-ended. Where Aronofsky fumbles is his insistence on bashing the audience over the head with his light/dark themes, repeatedly using different characters as mouthpieces to reinforce the black swan / white swan dichotomy. It almost borders on self parody and is one of the reasons why the screenplay didn’t work entirely for me.

Much like The King’s Speech, the best thing about Black Swan is the performances found within. Natalie Portman, in particular, puts forth a tour de force turn as the troubled protagonist, and it is easy to tell she had literally poured her heart and soul into bringing Nina to life, warts and all. Portman also underwent months of intensive dance training to prepare for the role, and Aronofsky had stated that much of the dancing in the movie is performed by Portman herself, and the body double coming into play only in wider shots. It is little wonder that Portman is the frontrunner for acting nominations this awards season, and it is deservedly so. Mila Kunis also deserves kudos for her portrayal as the free spirited Lily, and because her character is viewed through Nina’s eyes, she has to inhabit a number of wide-ranging personas all of which Kunis manages to nail.

It may be unflattering to compare Black Swan to roadkill, but the comparison is an apt one. This is a largely unattractive take on ballet, a drastic departure from many similarly-themed movies. Whilst the movie takes itself too seriously despite some rather eye-roll worthy plot points – a similarly crazed ex-prima donna? A controlling, smothering mother straight out from the Mommy Dearest handbook? – there’s a magnetic quality about the film that makes you unable to tear your eyes away. Imperfect as it is, Black Swan makes for very compelling viewing.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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