Movie Review: Black Swan

Impassioned genius, Darren Aronofsky, has done it again. He suffocates us with this disorienting and anxiety inducing tale charged with paranoia, terror, womanhood, sexual repression, and rivalry in equal measure. Ballet is a fiercely competitive world waiting to consume you within. Black Swan is an effective psychological thriller revolving around a neurotic, emotionally repressed, and uptight Nina who wants more than anything to be the new Swan Queen for the famous ballet, Swan Lake. She strives for perfection but she has only perfected the role of the White Swan. The director, Thomas, insists that she lose herself and show her sexual side to become the Black Swan. He has completely reinvented Swan Lake and sent his princess ballerina, Beth, into retirement. Nina faces pressure from the invious girls in the company, her obsessively controlling mother, and she receives competition from a new ballerina, Lily.

All ballerinas strive for perfection. From their foot work and torso right down to elegance and strength. I payed close attention to every move, every detail, and I did notice when Portman wasn’t correctly on pointe. As a professional ballerina, I cannot help but notice these things in film based around ballet. I waited so long for this film to come out. Ballet mixed with horror? AND starring some of my favorite actors? SOLD! It’s scary how much I saw myself in the character of Nina but I’m guessing many ballerinas do. It’s a stressful life. During the scene where she runs to her mother to happily announce that she is the new Swan Queen, it made me think about how I was jumping up and down and cheering with my mother after receiving my acceptance into the dance company in the mail. As someone who has experience with ballet, I can safely say that Black Swan not only shows you what ballet looks like but it also shows you what it feels like. Even the nervousness of it all captured exactly how I was as a ballerina. Chewing the fingernails, the scratching, and the competitiveness. It’s all there.

Nina finds herself in competition with Lily who has more charisma and sexuality but lacks the meticulousness and dedication from Nina. At times I wanted to smack Lily but you have to remind yourself that Nina is mental and we cannot trust everything she sees. Due to Nina’s sexual repression, she fantasized a lesbian encounter with Lily and she masturbated quite often. We think we know what’s happening but it’s all in Nina’s mind. Nina is a head case going through a paranoid identity crisis. It’s important to pay close attention to the characters around her and try not to get caught up in her unbalanced mind and delusions. Getting caught up with these illusions makes it hard for you to decided what’s real and what isn’t. You cannot trust everything you’re seeing through Nina’s eyes because it’s all her imagination. In addition to being bulimic and a head case, she also has an impulse disorder that causes her to scratch constantly. Paranoia and nerves will do that to you. Black Swan is also about Nina coming into womanhood. People get into long debates over the ending and some even despised the ending. Portman believes her character lives in the end and that Nina had to kill the little girl so she could mature into a woman. This is because Aronofsky told her he intentionally placed blood on her tights where it could symbolize Nina becoming a woman. Aronofsky usually leaves his endings up to the viewer. The debate will never end. I felt she did die in the end because in the ballet, Odette kills herself. She and her lover commit suicide by jumping into the lake. It’s a tragic, Romeo and Juliet like tale. However, she was able to perform perfectly with that womb in her stomach so she could have lived. It’s up to you to decide. The director of the ballet actually does explain the story of Swan Lake in the film, “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, the lustful twin, the Black Swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the White Swan leaps off a cliff, killing herself and, in death, finds freedom”.

People think the mirror scenes are typical in horror films. I don’t believe this can be overplayed. When done right, it’s still manageable to scare. There is a mirror in almost every shot of the film. I noticed things like this after watching it several times. The only time we don’t see a mirror is when Nina is dancing on stage. This is a reminder of Nina’s altered conception of reality. It’s almost as if her reflection has a life of its own. Figures that appear out of nowhere are what scares me. There’s one scene in particular that gave me the chills when we see an figure in a dark room. As for the effects, we don’t get much of gore or blood in this feature. We do get to see bits of skin ripping off and nails splitting. Then there’s the stabbing scene. I thought it was pretty neat how she actually transforms into the black swan in the end with the red eyes and the feathers. At this point they used CGI, which I am not a fan of but it look pretty awesome.

I’d like to point out that several critics didn’t do their homework and they claim Natalie Portman has been in dance training since she was a little girl. This isn’t true. Portman only took dance training from age 4 to 13. She doesn’t do all of the dancing in the film. She had two doubles but still went through a lot of training and Aronofsky claims she does 80% of the dance moves. She injured herself on several occasions. Learning to be a ballerina in a matter of months is no picnic. She also lost 20 pounds for the film so she could look more like a ballerina. Top this off with vocal training. Portman was told her voice sounded too child-like and needed to make it deeper and more adult-like in all of her films but for the role of Nina, they wanted her to sound more child-like. Portman cries A LOT in Black Swan. In the scene where her dance partner drops her at the end of the number and she tip toes off the stage in tears, it was so convincing and depressing to watch. I personally believe she deserved the Oscar she took home and all the other awards she won for this role, which are far too many to count. She didn’t have much competition at the Oscars except for maybe Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine. I hated Blue Valentine and I strongly dislike everything about Michelle Williams.  Ballet isn’t just ‘dancing.’ It’s connected with acting. Don’t underestimate the hard work and suffering that goes into that job. You have to perform the right emotions that fit with each move. Portman was able to use body language and show us the emotions in her face. Vincent Cassel imagined his character Thomas as George Balanchine, one of the co-founders of the New York City Ballet. Balanchine was known to use sexuality to direct his dancers and this is actually a common practice. There’s something very sexual and sensual about ballet. I felt he was too young for this part but was still able to pull it off. I have always been a fan. Barbara Hershey as the mother could have been Meryl Streep. I think Hershey did a great job but sometimes I wonder how it would have been with Streep as the overbearing mother. Streep has a coldness to her when she’s playing a psychotic character. I feel maybe she would have performed the role fiercer than Hershey but overall Hershey wasn’t bad. Nina’s relationship with her overbearing mother gives me the creeps. This woman forcefully undresses her daughter and changes her clothes. She has paintings and drawings of Nina hanging up all over one room. She even plays the Swan Lake music box after putting Nina to bed night after night. It’s like mind control. Hershey is SCARY in this movie. Look at her face. There are so many lines. She does not age well. I am not saying that to be mean. This girl is a huge fan of Beaches and The Entity. It’s just too hard not to comment on her startling appearance. Both Rahcel Weisz, Parker Posey, and Jennifer Connelly were considered for the role of Beth MacIntyre and I would have gone with either one of them over Winona Ryder. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Winona fan but the other two women have the ballerina ‘look’ and don’t even get me started on the abomination on Winona’s head. What was going on with her hair? I was excited at first when I heard she joined the cast but I have mixed feelings. I was hoping we could see her dance a little but it wasn’t needed to complete the story and she only went to one single dance class when she was younger. She never returned because she thought the dance instructor was mean. In most cases, the instructor really is mean. I cannot tell you how many times I broke down and cried in class because they yelled at me and told me I wasn’t good enough. For Mila Kunis, Blake Lively and Eva Green were considered. Kunis put on a great performance. Darren Aronofsky gave her the role without auditioning on Skype after Natalie Portman mentioned her for the role. Kunis only practiced ballet casually as a child so she’s not really a ballerina. They set her up with an instructor that worked with her for three months, five hours a day, seven days a week. Overall, I think they chose the right cast to complete the film.

You don’t have to be a ballet fan to enjoy this film. The camera work is quite effective, making you feel dizzy while spinning and moving along with the dancers. Black Swan is nearly perfect. I wouldn’t call it a horror film but horror fans may enjoy the transition into the Black Swan and the overall creepiness of the film.

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