“Take it from the vision.”
–Nina, to the pianist.

Black Swan? Really?

Black Swan has become one of the most discussed films of the last two months, and garnered Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress (Natalie Portman).

It’s also a thriller (arguably a psychological horror movie) and features some well-placed special effects.

Title: Black Swan

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John L. McLaughlin.

Cast

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers
Mila Kunis as Lily
Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy
Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers
Benjamin Millepied as David

Full Cast and Crew information is here.

Premise:

Black Swan tells the story of a repressed ballet dancer whose technical brilliance allows her to dance the White Swan in Swan Lake, but not the Black Swan. She needs to be able to do both to shine as lead dancer. As she engages the part, she begins to release a very dark side, madness she has kept in check. Our obsessed dancer’s efforts and desires create a dangerous synergy with her own unstable brain, with terrifying consequences.

High Points:

The combination of performance and effects used to depict Nina’s descent into madness create their own dark energy, and give the picture its power.

Low Points:

The story remains too familiar, and its execution, in places, a little too campy to watch with consistent seriousness.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6 I haven’t seen this type of story set in the ballet world before, nor know of a dance picture that pushes itself so far into the realm of horror. However, I recognize most of the tropes and, as I discuss under “Story,” I saw the ending coming from a long way off.

Effects: 6/6 Special effects help illustrate our dancer’s transformation. While occasionally cheesey, they blend nicely with more grounded views of the world. Nina’s skin turns to pustuled swanflesh– no, that’s the light playing tricks with her veil. Her feet grow webs—no, her battered and compressed toes have fused where they bleed.

Story: 4/6 Black Swan has a plot exploitative and lurid, which comes to an entirely predictable conclusion. Its treatment of female characters often seems less than enlightened. These same criticisms, however, could be made of ballet or opera. Swan Lake, certainly, stripped of the stylizations and technique used to carry the story, would suit an old pulp magazine, and might fail to win accolades for its depiction of women. Ballet, like opera, features sensationalist subject matter and exaggerated characters. Furthermore, as the audience usually knows the story, they cannot help but anticipate the ending. The script to Black Swan, then, reflects its subject matter. You may or may not excuse its excesses on these grounds. Judging from the film’s generally favourable response, most audiences have, at least, excused its excesses.

Acting: 6/6 The cast give excellent performances. Natale Portman proves convincing as our troubled protagonist, a victim of a disturbing stage mother, an abusive choreographer, a jealous ex-star, and her own personal demons. Mila Kunis, hitherto known as Jackie from That 70s Show and Meg from Family Guy, gives an eye-opening performance as Lily, the dark counterpart to Portman’s obsessed, tightly-controlled artist. (I wonder– given the other nominations this film received– why she did not qualify for Best Supporting Actress). Lily drinks and smokes and does drugs. She sleeps around off-stage, and speaks her mind backstage. As the story develops, we wonder how desperately she wants Nina’s part. I also found myself wondering to what degree she exists, and how much of her personality comes from Nina’s need for a shadow self.

Production: 6/6

Emotional Response: 5/6 This could almost be a female Fight Club, but the script has its own obsessions– and I immediately assumed (correctly) that men had written it. Make of that what you will. It could be a companion piece to the director’s earlier The Wrestler, another clever though exploitative look at an unbalanced performer. More accurately, it is the dance world’s Naked Lunch. The effort required to achieve greatness in art can exact a frightening price.

Overall: 4/6 The film passes through clever choreography, fractured visions, and sexual scenes to its horrific, if anticipated, finale. We’re left with a well-directed, well-acted, thrilling film—and questions about whether we need excess to entertain us, and whether Hollywood believes women and artists who suffer for and attain their goals can thrive.

In total, Black Swan receives 35/42.