“We all know the story. Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom, but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince, but before he can declare his love, her lustful twin, the Black Swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the White Swan leaps off a cliff, killing herself, and in death finds freedom.”
Darren Aronofsky made a huge name for himself with The Wrestler. That film was a great comeback for Mickey Rourke, who was ripped off at that year’s Oscars by the more politically correct Sean Penn. Aronofsky considers The Black Swan to be a companion piece to that film. You will certainly be able to see what he’s talking about, but he’s missing one important element in this film. He doesn’t get near the powerful performance out of Natalie Portman that he did from Rourke. She was also nominated for an Oscar, but unlike Rourke, she didn’t deserve to win it. She didn’t.
Nina (Portman) is a dancer who lives with her mother (Hershey), a woman who was also once a dancer. She has dedicated all of her young life to the art of ballet. She suffers pain and works harder than those around her to achieve perfection. When her company announces that it will produce a new version of Swan Lake, she desperately wants the part. The show’s director, Thomas Leroy (Cassel) is reluctant to cast Nina in the role. He tells her that her technique is nearly flawless, which would be perfect for the White Swan. The problem is that the role calls for a dancer who can bring both the White and Black Swans to life. She is all technique and short on passion. After she shows off a little spunk, she manages to capture the part. Leroy is constantly admonishing her to allow the part to take her over. As she attempts to embrace the Black Swan, she begins to change. Her body appears to be going through some kind of metamorphosis, and it has spread to her personality. She begins to alienate those around her as she becomes more and more like the Black Swan. The obsession consumes her literally, until the transformation is complete, and just like the character in the ballet, it is self-destructive.
How do you classify this film? Let’s make an attempt, shall we?
Is it a ballet film? Like The Wrestler, this movie certainly makes you feel like you’ve been granted a look into the inner world of a dancer. We see the lengths the girls will go through to keep their perfect forms. The pain that the movements cause are very vividly brought into view. There is a lot of dancing and music. The movie will absolutely please ballet film fans.
Is it a horror film? The movie made a recent cover of Fangoria magazine and has some classic horror elements. Nina’s transformation will remind some of you of Jeff Goldblume’s similar morph into a human fly. There’s a lot of peeling back finger skin. The creature itself, real or not, would certainly classify as a monster. There’s gore and a considered nod to the supernatural. Horror fans will find a lot to like here.
Is it a psychological thriller? There is no doubt that we are intended to try to guess how much of this is real and how much is in Nina’s mind. The film never completely answers the question. There are some Hitchcock moments here, and thriller fans will likely find enough of those elements to keep them interested.
Is it a character study? Natalie Portman is literally in every scene. The movie is told completely from her perspective. It doesn’t really matter what is real or not when you approach the story from the viewpoint of a true character study. It is Nina’s motivations and emotions that drive the movie at every turn. Portman isn’t really up to that much scrutiny, unfortunately. She doesn’t have the screen presence that is required to carry that kind of emotional movie. But this is very much a character study, notwithstanding.
Is it an arthouse film? The $13 million budget is one indication that it just might be a film well suited for the festival circuit. Aronofsky uses tremendous symbolism throughout the film. The camera doesn’t go to the obvious choices, and there is that cinema verite to the entire production. Nothing about the way this film is produced screams mainstream. Aronofsky uses mirrors and other reflective surfaces to point out that this is indeed intended as a reflective piece. The fact that he refuses to completely spell out what is really going on is point positive proof that this fits the arthouse mode quite comfortably.
Is it a fantasy? We can only assume that at least some of what Nina experiences, if not all of it, is happening in her head. Perhaps she’s not even in the company at all but is imagining even her accomplishments. I guess to many young girls getting this kind of role would be the ultimate fantasy. I guess not everyone fantasizes about spaceships, monsters and superpowers.
With the unfortunate exception of Portman herself, Aronofsky manages to get some very solid and powerful performances from the rest of his cast. To Portman’s credit, it’s obvious she worked hard on the movie. She endured a ton of lessons in dance and I’m sure paid a high physical toll for the role. Still, a lot of her dancing was done by a professional, and her face was digitally inserted. I don’t have a problem with that. That’s how these things work. It takes years of nearly obsessive dedication to be able to do these things. Certainly, I don’t fault Portman for not becoming flawless in six months. Portman just isn’t ever there and in the moment. I’ve found this to be a weakness going back to the Star Wars films where she worked opposite an even worse actor. The dedication is there. I just don’t feel anything from her. She appears to be an empty vessel.
Mila Kunis shines as a fellow dancer who has tried to undermine Nina to get the part for herself. Of course, we don’t ever know how much of this is real. She has the unenviable task of being both innocent and sincere while being capable of some real cruelty. I really think she would have been so much better in the lead. She delivers the best performance in the film. Until now she’s been in mostly romantic comedy vehicles and her steady gig voicing Meg on Family Guy. Give this girl her turn. Vincent Cassel is also excellent as the company director along with Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother. Winona Ryder has a small part as the has-been ballerina whose sacred place in the company Nina has taken. The part is awkward both from a script and performance point of view. I found it to be a sidetrack that never really advances the story. It does provide one of the gore elements of the film.
This has become one of those bucket-list films already. It gets a lot of buzz, and I’m sure you have to be curious enough to at least rent the film. It might even be one of those movies where you are watching it for the third time and suddenly something really clicks. I’m sure I’ll approach the film later again when I can do so with fresh eyes. I strongly suggest you check it out, and this Blu-ray release will be your next best chance.
The Black Swan is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. The film is intended to be dark and have a documentary feel, so don’t look for outstanding color or a rich shiny image presentation. There is plenty of grain, and it really belongs there, bringing the image to a more organic life. Contrast is the real winner here. The separation of black and white is, of course, a central theme in the movie. That theme is accentuated by a wonderful vivid contrast throughout. Color is often muted, leading to an almost monochromatic structure. It all has a gritty realism that is completely appropriate to the movie. The high-definition presentation delivers a solid reproduction of that intent.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 brings out the music beautifully. I’m used to hearing some of Swan Lake as the theme to the Universal Mummy film. Here it finally takes on new life and delivers a wonderfully dynamic sound. Dialog is often soft and subtle but cuts through when it needs to. Surrounds offer such ambient value as footfalls during the dance sequences and a little extra punch to the gore scenes.
Black Swan Metamorphosis: (48:55) HD This feature can be viewed in three chapters or together through the use of a play-all function. It was obviously split only for royalty concerns. The cast and crew take you on location and behind the scenes through raw footage intercut with interview clips. It’s not polished, which is how I like these features. The last 15 minutes is the most exciting as it details the f/x work to convert Portman into the Black Swan.
Ballet: (2:33) HD A little background on the story mostly told through Aronofsky and Portman
Production Design: (4:00) HD Therese DePrez was the film’s production designer. She guides you through her choices and shares her inspiration for certain aspects of the film’s design.
Costume Design: (3:55) HD Amy Westcott was the costume designer, and she shares some of the designs here.
Character Profiles: Natalie Portman (3:16), HD Darren Aronofsky (2:48)
Fox Movie Channel Presents: SD Features on the following:
Natalie Portman (5:56), Winona Ryder (2:17), Barbara Hershey (3:37), Vincent Cassel (4:43) and Darren Aronofsky (6:23)
Conversations: Preparing For The Role (3:53) and Dancing With The Camera (1:35) Aronofsky and Portman sit and have a couple of casual talks.
Unconventional from the first frame, The Black Swan is, if anything, a well-constructed movie that deserved the attention it has gotten. Just don’t try and pigeonhole the thing into any one style and you’ll likely enjoy the film as something unique and often powerful. The movie can look somewhat like a documentary without the overboard shaky camera bit. Aronofsky also uses his distinctive style to tell a story that has been told for ages. “Swan Lake: “done to death, I know”.