Black Swan, a brilliant film by Darren Aronofsky, comes out this Friday. We saw it a while ago at the Philadelphia Film Festival, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s pretty damn amazing.
Here’s the official plot summary:
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life, like all those in her profession, is completely consumed with dance. She lives with her obsessive former ballerina mother Erica (Hershey) who exerts a suffocating control over her. When 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 is his first choice. But Nina has competition: a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who impresses Leroy as well. Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan with innocence and grace, and the Black Swan, who represents guile and sensuality. Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly but Lily is the personification of the Black Swan. As the two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship, Nina begins to get more in touch with her dark side – a recklessness that threatens to destroy her.
Review by StayFrosty:
Having spent nearly a decade of my life as a ballet dancer (not as a career or anything, but I spent my fair share of time in pointe shoes), I was super excited to see Black Swan for several reasons. One, as far as I know, there’s only one other ballet-related horror/thriller, and that’s Dario Argento’s Suspiria. This movie rocks, but the dancing isn’t really a focus. So just the idea that there would be another ballet horror film was exciting. Two, it was directed by Darren Aronofsky! This man knows how to make a film. So I found myself counting down the days until I could get myself to Philly with my FGSG partners and see this thing. And oh man, I was not disappointed!
This film is a slow burn and always engaging. The camera is usually close, hand-held, even claustrophobic when not in performances. Aronofsky doesn’t flinch, doesn’t look away whether it is a brutal wounding or an explicit love scene. The music avoids melodrama and mainly lets Tchaikovsky speak for himself. The sound design helps to build the mood, including the use of bird sounds and the most uncomfortable nail clipping scene in history. Piling tension on top of tension (and using all different types of tension to maximum effect), Aronofsky builds the suspense until you’ve nearly reached a breaking point. I’m pretty sure I didn’t breathe for the last 15 minutes of the film. To illustrate just how riveting this movie truly was, after the screening, when I thought back, I realized that no one left the theater once the film started. No one – not to use the bathroom, not to answer a call, nothing. I don’t think I could have left if I wanted to, and it seemed that others felt the same way.
The film explores the idea of what it means to be an artist, if self-harm creates “truer” art, and what sacrifices are needed to be honest and fully present in your creative process. While this could apply to any art form, I found it interesting that Aronofsky chose to set this tightly wound thriller/mindtrip in the world of professional ballet. A life in dance and especially ballet is rumored to be extremely high stress, where your career is often short and your ousting isn’t always friendly. The film suggest that the only way to go out on top is to quit while you’re ahead, or you must suffer the indignity of being forced out so someone younger can take your place. The bitterness of being pushed aside is perfectly represented by Winona Ryder as Beth, the former prima ballerina. Ryder is typically known for sweeter roles, but here she is sharp and brings electricity to a small but important part.
The casting is top-notch all around. Portman captures the innocence and fragility of new star Nina, and handles her emotional shifts with skill. Mila Kunis, as Portman’s hedonistic opposite, plays off Portman well and though her role is not large, she makes it count. Vincent Cassel is always great to have in a film, and Aronofsky makes a great choice to make this character not obvious in his behaviors and choices. Barbara Hershey is the real revelation here. She plays Nina’s mother with an unsettling and volatile edge that keeps you rapt whenever she’s in the scene. A mother/daughter relationship hasn’t been this creepy since Carrie.
While I thought I might find comparisons to Suspiria, I actually found this film had more in common thematically to Roman Polanski‘s Repulsion. There’s a film that also knows how to crank up the tension until it explodes with devastating effect. And when Black Swan finally reaches its own moment of chaos and release, it’s breathtaking. As someone who spent a lot of time dancing, I appreciated that Aronofsky truly worked to make the dancing a central part of the film, not just using the ballet company as a backdrop. The dance is a reflection of the characters, especially Nina and her increasingly slippery grip on reality. I don’t want to give too much away, but I love that when the character is changed, the style of her dancing is also altered. And you can tell, even if you aren’t a dancer. That attention to detail is rare and wonderful to see.
Notes from Jenny Dreadful:
“Following a character resigned to their place within a beautiful downward spiral, I would compare this plot… the plot at its very core… to The Wrestler more than any other Aronofsky work. The Wrestler with a more elegant surface and genuinely disturbing horror elements. This is an amazing film. A surreal psychosexual tension fest.
Tension is the best word for it really. Repression of all kinds circling around the desperate need for sexual release, body horror triggering more uncomfortable squirming with minor injuries than the goriest death from your average torture movie, nightmare mirror imagery that haunts our protagonist and threatens her sense of self, her identity irreparably cracking in two leading to a bizarre and enchanting finale … I don’t think my muscles relaxed once after Black Swan took hold. A contender for best horror film of the year…. maybe even best film of the year? See it. And then see it again.”
Would I recommend?
Hell yes. To everyone.
Does it pass the Bechdel test?
Yes – in the trailer, no less! This movie is a Bechdel superstar!
You will not be disappointed by Black Swan. Go see it, then come back here and tell us your thoughts!