Film Review: Black Swan

The film “Black Swan” is a raw representation of the world of ballet, the fragility of perception, and the power of one’s own mind.

Black Swan. Those two little words carry so much weight. The Black Swan is the character Odile in the tragic classical ballet “Swan Lake.” She is seductive, villainous, deceitful … fascinating. The daughter of evil Rothbart, Odile uses her appearance and cunning to convince the Prince that she is his love Odette–the virtuous White Swan.  The Prince pledges his love to Odile, which dooms Odette and ultimately leads her to take her own life.

Director Darren Aronofsky uses the ballet “Swan Lake” as the backdrop for his film “Black Swan.” Despite how excited I was that a mainstream thriller (with high profile actors) had a ballerina as the main character, I had my reservations. The previews were promising, but I was curious what direction the movie would take.

The film centers on Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a soloist in a Manhattan-based ballet company. Nina is a nervous, soft-spoken ballerina, who lives with her overprotective, ex-ballerina mother. She is reserved and cautious; she is often alone, detached from the other dancers. Her only focus is her pursuit of ballet perfection.

The ballet company’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is creating a new production of “Swan Lake,” and Nina is selected to be the new “Swan Queen” (Odette/Odile). This is Nina’s first principal role with the company. The challenge for her (and any ballerina performing this role) is to be able to portray both the fragile and forlorn White Swan, and the vindictive and brazen Black Swan. Nina has trouble following her director’s instructions to lose herself in the role, and “let go.”

The film zeros in on the layers of internal struggles that Nina faces as she tries to “let go”: the anxiety of performing her first lead; the pressure of meeting her director’s demands; the guilt of replacing Beth (Winona Ryder), the bitter principal dancer who is being forced into retirement; and the paranoia over potentially losing the role to Lily (Mila Kunis), the fiery new soloist that is getting everyone’s attention. The extreme close-ups and hand-held documentary style camera movements make it seem as though we are either right next to Nina, following right behind her, or looking through her eyes. We are just as entrenched inside Nina’s mind as she is.

As the rehearsals progress, Nina’s world makes an eerie shift. She sees movements in the mirrors, and her own face on strangers. A rash appears on her back, and her fingernails bleed. Nina lashes out at her mother. She takes a wild adventure in the city with Lily that leaves her foggy and disoriented. Nina’s focus deteriorates into confusion; her paranoia escalates. The line between perception and reality blurs. But what remains absolutely clear is her frantic desire to perform. The whirlwind of “Black Swan” culminates with the company’s shocking opening night of “Swan Lake.”

The film is very well cast, with all of the actors embracing their characters. Natalie Portman especially. Not only does she convincingly play Nina, she does an amazing job with the ballet choreography. Though she does not perform all the steps in this film, Natalie’s arduous training for this role certainly paid off. Her port de bras, épaulement, and musical phrasing are impressive. During the film, I (as Thomas did about Nina) wondered if Natalie would be able to portray the Black Swan as well as she performed Nina’s vulnerable character. But she was spectacular at both. The stage performance of the Black Swan variation was a spectacular scene.

The cinematography definitely enhanced the story. The events of the film were seen through a gritty haze, the colors and lighting mostly grey and green. The exception being the dark red club scene that had stuttering (almost strobe speed) flashes of Nina and Lily dancing in the crowd; it was nearly impossible to see what was happening, again paralleling Nina’s experience. The special effects were seamless for both the ballet performances and the supernatural elements. Aronofsky’s play with mirrors throughout the film was fantastic, intensifying the perplexity of perception versus reality.

“Black Swan” is a dark, sinister film filled with obsession, sensuality, jealousy, malice, and more. But as much as ballet is an integral part of this film, and as deeply as the plot is wrapped around the story of “Swan Lake,” to me it isn’t really about ballet or “Swan Lake.” It is about one woman’s battle with herself.

This article was originally published on AltDaily in January of 2011.

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