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Review: Black Swan (2010)

This article was published on the original Sorry I’m Late.com on 30/01/11.

Black Swan

Director Darren Aronofsky follows up his successful 2009 picture The Wrestler with Black Swan. Both films share similar themes such as the extent performers will go through for their crafts: Black Swan in the bitchy world of ballet, The Wrestler in the underestimated and gruelling world of professional wrestling. Black Swan’s plot revolves around a new production of Swan Lake by an esteemed New York ballet company. The production requires a lead that can portray the dual role of the innocent White Swan as well as the dark, sexual Black Swan. Nina (Natalie Portman) is the ideal White Swan, innocent and faultless in technique; while newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) has the carefree nature and sensuality ideal for the Black Swan. As the two contest the coveted role, Nina’s dark side is slowly revealed but does it come at the cost of her sanity?

Unlike The Wrestler, which was a fairly straight character profile, Aronofsky twists the narrative of Black Swan by installing various levels of psychological thriller and horror so that we gather a visual interpretation of the decline of Nina’s fragile state of mind. Aronofsky does an excellent job of keeping the ambiguity as to what we are seeing: is it reality, a dream, or perhaps an amalgamation of both? But then occasionally a character will drop a quote which makes you rethink your entire thought process and you are continually trying to decipher the goings on. He has made the kind of film that be can be interpreted entirely different depending on the viewer.

The direction and Academy Award nominated cinematography (Matthew Libatique, an Aronofsky regular) is outstanding. Aronofsky follows Portman’s Nina around from behind in what now must be called his trademark style, and the handheld camerawork really goes in close for most of the dance routines; much more visceral than if they were shot mostly from a distance. The CGI effects, while minimal, are also muted and do not detract from the film but genuinely add to the psychosis.

In case you didn’t notice: mirrors are a pretty important thematic device.

Clint Mansell’s score is absolutely incredible, deriding a majority of the soundtrack directly from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, which further accentuates the parallels of the ballet itself and Nina’s character arc.

Performances were fantastic from all the leads, but particular attention has to be paid to Natalie Portman who absolutely shines as Nina: a tricky character that is in a constant state of flux as far as emotions and levels of character development are concerned. A well earned Best Actress Academy Award nomination, if I do say so myself (which I do).

After my viewing, I skimmed past the IMDb forums, curious of other interpretations, and I found plenty of different opinions but none that matched my hypothesis. Want to hear it?

SPOILERS BE HERE

Nina’s first quote in the movie is, “I had the craziest dream last night. I was dancing the white swan.”

I think this is actually a clue on how to interpret the entire movie: I believe the whole thing travels between reality and Nina’s subconscious dream-land, often with the subconscious bleeding into the real world. If you pay close attention, Nina spends many moments in the film either waking up or going to sleep (or getting knocked out). I may need to revisit it once more to confirm this, but I also think there were subtle changes made to the lighting and colouring of the shots in an understated effort to evoke different moods between the waking and dream worlds.

As for the epic finale, I have this:

I think that Nina’s second act (Swan Lake is performed in four acts; the first act was not shown in the movie due to it not featuring Nina) performance of the White Swan was reality, including the devastating mishap on stage. Knowing that she has ruined the show – possibly her career – Nina stabs herself in grief due to her fragile state of mind. When she appears as the Black Swan in the third act, she blows everyone away with her performance – cast and audience alike – and literally becomes the Black Swan in a beautiful, triumphant sequence. This is Nina’s self conscious giving the performance she’s always dreamed and the resulting adulation she’s always strived for.

Yep, mirrors again.

Considering the embarrassment suffered during the second act of the ballet, I find it hard for the crowd, the cast, and especially Thomas, to be so enamoured in her performance. This is Nina’s subconscious making up for her real-life failures: her pursuit for perfection can only be attained in her head.

The ballet’s fourth act sees the death of the White Swan, where we find that Nina has suddenly and profusely started to bleed from the stomach while the crowd roars their approval in the background. The movie then fades to white and into the credits. The fade to white was the turning point for me on this one: while a common trope of Aronofsky, I believe that the fade to white either indicates Nina’s death in her dressing room; or perhaps, less likely, the bright lights of a hospital. I doubt that Nina would be able to perform two whole acts – and tear the house down, no less – with a massive stab wound in her stomach if this were reality.

Nina’s final quote is, “I felt it. Perfect. I was perfect.” I think this sums it all up nicely: she could only achieve the perfect performance in her imagination, and had to kill herself to do it; mirroring the fate of the White Swan and Nina, a parallel that Aronofsky was clearly aiming for the entire film.

SPOILERS HERE BE FINISHED

What do you think? Am I crazy? Do I make good points? Do my theories warrant at least another viewing? Hit me up on one of the contact methods to the right.

Black Swan was a pleasant, dare I say unexpected, thrill ride that legitimately has you guessing where it’s going to go next right up until the glorious conclusion. This was one of those movies that once the credits rolled I was in a mixture of deep thought and nearly fist-pumping excitement over the awesome piece of cinema I just witnessed. Good times.

I have heard – on more than one occasion mind you – people saying things along the lines of, “I didn’t get that movie. It was stupid: worst movie lolz.” Let me point out something to these people: if you didn’t get the movie; you are stupid, not the movie you just watched. Don’t be afraid to exercise your brain, morons.

Put your psycho shoes on tight and prepare for a wild, cerebral ride; Black Swan is totally a classic in the making. It’s not very often that original, thought provoking cinema pierces the public in such a way as Black Swan has. Make the most of it; the next Michael Bay is right around the corner.

Award: Golden Llama

– The dance sequences almost made me interested in ballet (almost).

– When the guy in Black Swan outfit says ‘Hi’ to Nina 🙂

– Lez-be-friends scene.

– The unexpectedly heart-pumping finale.

– The dance sequences almost made me interested in ballet (almost).

– Roman Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy’; Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant

– Fight Club

– The Fly

– American Psycho

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin  Produced by: Scott Franklin, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Brian Oliver Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Run length: 108 minutes Australian Release: 20 January 2011
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1 Comment

  1. First things first: what’s wrong with ballet? 🙂
    I’ve seen the movie a while ago. I had seen the trailer and knew some parts would come, but when watching the movie in the cinema, I got really scared at times… I’m no hero when seeing horrorlike movies, I’m afraid :). It’s a very mysterious movie, and the ending was always a bit unclear to me, but you say some very interesting things… Certainly it’s a movie to think about, and I have been thinking about it, but it’s only when I’m reading reviews and thoughts on the movie that I can make out for myself what I’ve seen.

    Enough babbling, I just wanted to say that your review is interesting.
    And that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with ballet. Just sayin’.

    Like

    Reply

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