February 19, 2011


One of Black Swan's many fantastic posters
From one controlling mother figure in Disney's Tangled, to another in ballet psycho-drama Black Swan: a double feature I did not expect to have a connecting thread.

There has been much written (and that I have read) on Darren Aronofsky’s new film. More than a few people (and critics) have found themselves disconnected from the film’s events and although I loved the film, I can perhaps see why some found it so hilarious. And while it shares some DNA with Aronofsky’s previous The Wrestler, Black Swan is very much its own heady mix of psycho-drama, melodrama, body horror and obsession. In short, a cinematic cocktail that can easily become over-the-top for some viewers.

However, I went with it. I loved it and found it to be an intense charting of one woman’s pursuit of perfection and her descent into madness. While simultaneously exploring creativity and the obsession that can result from it and casting a light on an otherwise little seen aspect of ballet (as opposed to The Wrestler’s, well, wrestling). A heady mix indeed.

Portman as Nina, the perfect but passionless ballerina, gives a devastating performance. She utterly disappears into the role of the prim and disturbed Nina, constantly under the thumb of her mother and choreographer. The role is something akin to performing ballet atop a high wire – there are so many precise moments and emotions Portman has to hit, so many little suggestions she has to give us while at the same time balancing the delicate nature and psychosis of Nina, without making it absurd. And come the end, with her transformation into the confident, vengeful and sensual black swan, it is a change so convincing and so complete I was utterly stunned.

I don't think the (admittedly mad) pursuit of the unattainable perfection is what sends Nina over the edge of sanity. No, I found it intriguing that the first sign we are given of her paddling dangerously close to the waters of insanity comes before she is given the role of the Swan Queen, before the pressure and expectation are really, truly piled on. It lends a curious new dimension to the film: it is not the creative process that sends her into insanity; instead it becomes a dangerously off kilter person who is pushed further out.

To be sure, you can surmise that that pressure has always been there for Nina - in the form of her creepily obsessed mother Erica. She was once a ballet dancer; she never made it very far and having a child obviously put paid to her career. She lives her life through her daughter - always pushing her, always wanting Nina to succeed to validate her own life. Barbara Hershey is mesmerisingly excruciating as the mother, bringing equal effect to the smallest interactions and the largest dramatic gestures.

Throughout the film, Aronofsky focuses on the duality of the white swan/black swan and Nina/Lily (Mila Kunis). He teeter’s dangerously close to swamping us with the virginal/sensual, white/black, female/male, mirrors, twins and doppelgangers imagery and themes. Mila Kunis' Lily is the opposite of Portman's Nina in just about every possible way, and this is continually pointed out to us. Aronofsky's use of visual effects to enhance proceedings is far more subtle and strong work; the CG (and there is plenty of CG) never once screams "Look at me! Look at how wonderful this visual effect is! BE DAZZLED!" Instead, Aronofsky proves himself one of the few directors with an understanding of how CG and VFX can be used to enhance rather than distract from the story. The use of a handheld aesthetic helps add to the feeling of immediacy and never once feels like an overused gimmick - which is saying something, because it kind of is nowadays. It is a fine balancing act Aronofsky has to maintain throughout the runtime. I would say he is largely successful with it, though I know others will disagree. 

Ballet, to me, can often seem like a bizarre challenge/torture to the human body. The supreme, painful effort ballet dancers have to put themselves through for each performance has always struck me as a little mad. But, when they create something graceful and beautiful it all seems worth it. However truthful to the actual life of a ballerina Black Swan is or isn't, I believe it succeeds in being a dizzying mix of melodrama, body horror, creative forces and psychodrama. I know that reactions tend to fall under "loved it!" or "laughed at it!", but I will happily say I loved it and that I cannot wait to see where Aronofsky takes us next.


  1. I thought Barbara Hershey was amazing, a perfect portrait of repressed psychosis. It reminded me a lot of Piper Laurie's performance as Carrie's mother in 'Carrie'; both women, who at first seem protective of their daughter but go to extremes when they feel she is leaving the nest.

  2. I'm glad you liked it.
    Having seen it and loved it myself I was ... wary of what other, more astute film-buffs, might think.

  3. Astute?! Why thank-you. As always, these are just my opinions and thoughts. I call them "reviews", but I really don't know that they are (in a formal sense). But, as always, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment guys. Appreciated.