In Contention

REVIEW: “Black Swan” (****)

Posted by · 6:18 am · September 1st, 2010

Venice Film Festival

It’s the juvenilization of the term “fairy tale” that has led many people to associate them inextricably with happy endings. At their most literary, fairy tales can be moral and often very unhappy narratives of yearning, obsession and eventual redemption, even if it comes with rather a large sacrifice attached; Hans Christian Andersen specialized in compromised happy endings, notably in “The Little Mermaid” and “The Red Shoes,” that would have made Walt Disney wince.

If you squint slightly at “Black Swan,” the boldly deranged and beautifully despairing new film from Darren Aronofsky, you can see that it is, when push comes to plié, a contemporary fairy tale of sorts: the story of a little girl, in the fierce grip of controlling adults, who wants nothing more than to dance, and learns that she must exchange part of herself for the opportunity.

That much I can say without breaking the spell for those who have not seen it. For while “Black Swan” may reveal itself as a fairy tale, that’s only after it has successfully masqueraded as a taut, witty and wickedly kinky thriller that pulls off the tricky double-bluff of following precisely the narrative course one has mapped out for it, yet emerging as all the more surprising for that adherence.

The excited hum of online chatter around the film’s terrifically nutso trailer a few weeks back had people projecting all manner of elaborate, “Fight Club”-style identity gymnastics, yet it’s no spoiler to say that Aronofsky has assembled a considerably more streamlined character study than one might have expected: Natalie Portman’s  Nina, a physically and emotionally fragile young dancer in Vincent Cassel’s progressive New York ballet company, is the nexus of all the film’s nervy uncertainties.

It was reported recently that “Black Swan” was initially conceived in tandem with Aronofsky’s previous film, “The Wrestler,” and as far-fetched as that union seemed on paper, the film is, from first movement to last, very much the brittle younger sister to that brawny trailer-park tragedy. Both are studies of performers destructively addicted to their art, and the new film maintains the director’s fascination with the broken bodies of such individuals: Matthew Libatique’s camera cruelly scrutinizes the twisted, blistered shells of dancers’ feet as much as the earlier film did the wrecked ghost of Mickey Rourke’s body, while Aronofsky hones in on the petty rivalries and part-time camaraderie of the girls in the company as astutely as he observed Randy the Ram’s meathead backstage family on the pro wrestling circuit.

The difference is that “Black Swan” extends that fascination to the realm of the mind: Nina’s malnourishment and mangled toes are small potatoes compared to the damage she inflicts on herself internally — her punishing workaholism fiercely egged on by Barbara Hershey’s nightmare stage mom, in parental court on charges of both infantilization and vicarious living. When a lifetime of this is finally rewarded with her dream role of The Swan Queen in the company’s revisionist staging of “Swan Lake,” Nina’s gruelling self-punishment tilts over into delusional paranoia, not assisted by the friendly advances of Mila Kunis’s rival dancer Lily.

Here the fun begins, but while the film dances on the precipice of a steep fall into trash territory, the emotional urgency of Nina’s plight keeps it centered, even as Aronofsky dials the atmospherics (and Clint Mansell the thrilling Tchaikovsky orchestrations) up to 11.

Portman has never been so cannily cast, nor so cunningly exposed, on screen. When, early on, Cassel’s ceaselessly demanding director chides that he “sees only the White Swan” in Nina, and not the dark spontaneity required of its black counterpart, it could be a cheeky metaphor for the actress herself: long a lissome, delicate screen presence, she has sometimes struggled with conveying intensity or purposefulness. Here, the role cleverly forces the actress into her most pinched, peaky mannerisms — even her little-girl voice is pitched an octave higher than usual — only to undercut them as the character gradually loses her self-awareness; the resulting performance is as dangerous, and oddly touching, as Portman has ever allowed herself to be.

She’s bolstered by a trio of superb supporting players: Hershey and Cassel are clearly having a whale of a time with their helpless dragonry and arch oiliness, respectively, but it’s the cool, throaty-voiced Kunis who is the surprise package here, intelligently watching and reflecting her co-star in such a manner that we’re as uncertain as Nina of her ingenuousness. (There’s a neat cameo from Winona Ryder, too — notable mainly for gifting her with the unavoidably hilarious line, “You stole my things!”)

Frankly, the film would remain standing even without this wealth of human virtues, such is the richness and inventiveness of the craft it showcases.  Libatique, renewing his collaboration with Aronofsky after a one-film hiatus, excels himself here — no casual statement, that, and no casual feat, either — by fully exploiting the mobility of Super 16. You may marvel at the film’s alternately dank and lustrous still compositions, all metal and mirrors with the occasional rose blush, but the true wonder is his seamless participation in the ballet sequences, the camera as fluidly choreographed as the dancers themselves. Editor Andrew Weisblum, meanwhile, has devised a striking scheme of tracking the film’s rhythmic shifts, often knitting scenes together with unreturned glances and hanging lines of dialogue.

Both men (not to mention the film’s outstanding design team, makeup artists included) operate within an unsubtle black-white binary dictated by the script; some will find the attached symbolism overly pat, but such schematics feel appropriate both to the literate design of the narrative and the heightened, feverish mood Aronofsky is working in this time; not as extravagant as “The Fountain” nor as unhinged as “Requiem for a Dream,” it nonetheless feels like his riskiest venture to date, and his most opalescent film.

There will, I suspect, be those left cold by the film’s more mannered instincts, or those who feel it’s a genre-film concession too far for the director. Either way, however, “Black Swan” cements Aronofsky’s place as one of the biggest and most unruly thinkers working in the only notionally small aesthetic of American independent cinema — and that, if you choose to ignore everything I just argued in my opening paragraph, is something of a fairy tale itself.

[Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

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57 responses so far

  • 1 9-01-2010 at 6:25 am

    amanda said...

    After seeing the trailer I didn’t think I could be more excited about seeing this movie, but after reading your review and others I am. Great review.

  • 2 9-01-2010 at 6:28 am

    Glenn said...

    Okay, now I’m even more excited for this. Damn you Guy!

    And, it has to be asked so I might as well be the one to ask it… Oscar potential?

  • 3 9-01-2010 at 6:29 am

    Glenn said...

    Also, what about prizes at the Lido. A bit too genre for the big prizes perhaps? Volpi cup contender?

  • 4 9-01-2010 at 6:30 am

    Carlo said...

    Wow. I am so pumped for this!:D

    Thanks for the amazing review Guy! Enjoy the rest of the festival:)

    I have to ask for your opinion though… Top 10 material come Oscars? Sounds like it’s good to go for me.

  • 5 9-01-2010 at 6:38 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Glenn and Carlo: It’s WAY outside the Academy’s comfort zone. Maybe if they’re feeling adventurous, but I can easily imagine it getting blanked save for a Best Cinematography nom — which it can’t conceivably miss out on.

    As for the Venice jury, they may feel the way festival juries often do about outstanding big-name entries: that it will be rewarded enough elsewhere.

  • 6 9-01-2010 at 6:40 am

    James D. said...

    Won’t read the review until after I see the film, but wow, Lodge, 4 stars? I am very excited now. Now go see Sleeping Beauty!

  • 7 9-01-2010 at 6:40 am

    Whiz said...

    Guy, what are Portman’s chances in the Best Actress category now that you’ve seen it?

  • 8 9-01-2010 at 6:45 am

    Mike_M said...

    Wow, even more excited after reading this… can’t wait.

  • 9 9-01-2010 at 6:49 am

    Ugarte said...

    You mentioned the “mobility of digital” but IMDb says that it was shot on 16mm, similar to The Wrestler. Did it still have a digital/video look?

  • 10 9-01-2010 at 6:52 am

    Richard Vialet said...

    “Libatique, renewing his collaboration with Aronofsky after a one-film hiatus, excels himself here — no casual statement, that, and no casual feat, either — by fully exploiting the mobility of digital.”

    ** It wasn’t shot digitally, it was shot on Super16mm

  • 11 9-01-2010 at 6:57 am

    Alex in Movieland said...

    “but I can easily imagine it getting blanked save for a Best Cinematography nom — which it can’t conceivably miss out on.” – Didn’t we all say that about Bright Star last year? :)

    how about Hershey? How serious is she for a Supporting Actress nomination?

  • 12 9-01-2010 at 6:59 am

    Julian Stark said...

    I am so excited for this movie!!! I’m especially ecstatic about the supporting cast. Hershey playing the crazy stage mom, *and* Kunis getting a breakout role?!

    Your review makes me all the more anticipatory for “Black Swan!”

  • 13 9-01-2010 at 7:01 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    Guy on twitter you gave it A-. So A- equates to 4/4 for you?

  • 14 9-01-2010 at 7:06 am

    JJ said...

    I would venture a guess that while Guy wrote his review and thought about it more, a better idea of his thoughts came to fruition, hence the 4/4.

    Happens to me all the time (for better or worse).

  • 15 9-01-2010 at 7:11 am

    Duncan Houst said...

    I’m a little distrustful of Matthew Libatique as his cinematography for “Iron Man 2” left me sick to my stomach. However, I’m sure he does a great job here.

    And it goes unsaid that Portman will be a huge possibility for Best Actress, but what are it’s chances for Best Picture. This is a very scarce year, so I can see this film making the cut.

  • 16 9-01-2010 at 7:13 am

    m1 said...

    Wow, I must say that you are better than writing short reviews than the people at EW.

    Fox Searchlight has 4 contenders, could this possibly WIN best picture?

    How much sex and violence is in the movie, and could you give some examples?

    Will you watch it again?

    Will Aronofsky finally get the recognition he deserves, regardless of whether it is in directing or writing?

    Could one of the actors possibly win?

    Am I asking too many questions?

  • 17 9-01-2010 at 7:14 am

    Allison said...

    Probably my most anticipated review from your Venice coverage, Guy, and both the film and your coverage have lived up to my expectations. :)

    That said, with respect, I’m going to put your rave out of my mind for a while yet since I’m already ridiculously excited for this movie and I don’t want to spoil this movie for myself with too much hype. But it’s great (and a bit of a relief) to hear that it’s a success!

    I winced a bit at your description of fairytales (especially the Anderson ones *spitspit*) in your opening paragraph though. Just sensitive to popular adult misunderstandings on how fairytales work, I guess.

  • 18 9-01-2010 at 7:15 am

    m1 said...

    14-Conviction, Inception, Never Let Me Go, Black Swan, 127 Hours, The Fighter, The Town, Hereafter, The Next Three Days, Toy Story 3, Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right, Morning Glory, and more. You call this scarce?

  • 19 9-01-2010 at 7:17 am

    Jim T said...

    A great review that made me, as others, even more excited though I always keep in mind that I may react totally differently.

    And just because I couldn’t resist:

    Does Nina at the end say that she is a black swan a la Chekhov’s Nina? :p

  • 20 9-01-2010 at 7:22 am

    ninja said...

    Excellent review and news! I`m rooting for this movie for so long.

  • 21 9-01-2010 at 7:30 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    I just hope the hype doesn’t kill this movie like it did Up in the Air which peaked way too early. Even for me personally I was tired of hearing about it before I even saw it in December.

  • 22 9-01-2010 at 7:35 am

    billybil said...

    Beautifully considered and written review. No small feat, I should think, in the middle of that festival. Very “Guy Lodgey” and all the better for it. Thanks so much. (You must have at least gotten some sleep that first night!)

  • 23 9-01-2010 at 7:54 am

    The Other James D. said...

    If there are other reactions this strong, we could be pleasantly surprised this season.

    Perhaps the Academy will decide that it’s Aronofsky’s time.

  • 24 9-01-2010 at 8:05 am

    JFK said...

    Great review Guy. It sounds like on that is not to be missed, regardless of awards merit.

  • 25 9-01-2010 at 8:26 am

    Lindsay said...

    I think we really need to hold off on talking about awards for this movie since, yes Variety and Guy liked it but both The Hollywood Reporter and Todd McCarthy both thought it was entirely too over-the-top and absurd. I don’t think any awards for the film or any of the actors is definite. Just somewhat possible.

  • 26 9-01-2010 at 8:32 am

    The Other James D. said...

    True, except for Hershey, perhaps, for scenery-chewing/veteran love. Think William Hurt in A History of Violence.

    Not a guarantee, but a prime contender for a slot.

  • 27 9-01-2010 at 8:37 am

    JJ said...

    Guy, in your opinion, for those critics (a couple thus far) and audiences (down the road) … why would they potentially ‘not’ be wild about the film? Reasons, etc..

  • 28 9-01-2010 at 8:55 am

    Emmanuelle said...

    This film looks very boring.Im more interested in freida pinto’s Miral.

  • 29 9-01-2010 at 8:59 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Great article Guy — looking forward to seeing the film at TIFF — huge fan of “Requiem for a Dream”, best pic of 2000 — interested to see Portman challenged further than she was by Mike Nichols in “Closer” — tick, tick, tick….

  • 30 9-01-2010 at 9:00 am

    Fitz said...

    This came out of nowhere to leap on top of my most anticipated films of this winter. I should have known better than to discount Aronofsky just because of the subject matter.

  • 31 9-01-2010 at 9:06 am

    The Other James D. said...

    @Emmanuelle: I always enjoy a daily dose of irony, but that was like a four-course meal.

  • 32 9-01-2010 at 9:19 am

    Joseph said...

    Excellent review; really psyched to see this.

  • 33 9-01-2010 at 9:19 am

    Nick Davis said...

    I’d get so excited by what I was reading and then kept furiously skimming so that I wouldn’t know more than I want to. All very tantalizing!

  • 34 9-01-2010 at 9:20 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I see the film in a few days so I’ll force myself to hold off reading this for now. But the four stars at the top have me giddy.

  • 35 9-01-2010 at 9:48 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Whiz: I suspect her chances are hampered by the eccentricity of her vehicle.

    Richard Vialet: See, I knew that, and there my brain goes fading on me while I write. Thanks for the correction.

    Alex: I think it’s a distinct possibility.

    Matthew Starr: An A- equals four stars from me, yes. I’m stricter with letter grades than I am with stars, as they offer more wiggle room.

    m1: In order: No; one scenes of masturbation and another of lesbian sex (both tasteful); yes; I couldn’t count on it (and he didn’t write the film); probably not; and yes.

    JJ: What I said in the last paragraph — plus some will think it overly lurid and/or hysterical.

  • 36 9-01-2010 at 10:01 am

    Jim T said...

    An A- from Guy could go either way. His A- for Another Year was 3.5/4 stars.

  • 37 9-01-2010 at 10:46 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    Guy out of curiosity can you name your top five films of 2010 thus far?

  • 38 9-01-2010 at 10:47 am

    James said...

    Even more excited.

  • 39 9-01-2010 at 11:13 am

    Michael said...

    I am so happy I could cry right now. Everything has been confirmed from you and a long list of other very trusted critics as well about this film. I could just scream I am so excited about this film. Your review was exquisite, thank you Guy for taking the time to write that wonderful review.

  • 40 9-01-2010 at 12:06 pm

    Filmoholic said...

    FUCK YES! And I haven’t even read the review yet.

  • 41 9-01-2010 at 12:43 pm

    Eric said...

    Guy, do you think Portman’s chances of WINNING are hampered by the eccentricity, or her chances of being NOMINATED? Because after that review it seems almost certain to me that if she doesn’t make the list of nominations, then she is right outside the edge of the box.

  • 42 9-01-2010 at 12:44 pm

    Filmoholic said...

    Fantastic review, Guy. But could you give us some detailed impressions on Mansell’s score? How does it compare to his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain? Is it that great?

  • 43 9-01-2010 at 1:27 pm

    Kevin K said...

    Damn it sounds Luke Aronofsky crafted yet another extraordinary film. Can’t wait to see it. When’s the theatrical release again?

  • 44 9-01-2010 at 3:43 pm

    daveylow said...

    I have tickets for this at Toronto. I was going to trade them for something that won’t be immediately released but after reading this review, I don’t know if I’ll be able to wait. If it’s that good, it will be worth seeing this with the film loving Toronto audience.

  • 45 9-01-2010 at 4:09 pm

    The Other James D. said...


  • 46 9-01-2010 at 6:34 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Matthew: I’d rather leave you in suspense until the year’s end…

    Eric: Of being nominated. I don’t imagine she’ll win.

    Filmoholic: There’s less of it, for starters, since Tchaikovsky obviously factors in hugely. I wish I could tell you more, but I simply haven’t time.

  • 47 9-01-2010 at 11:14 pm

    Dustin said...

    Hey guys- I havnt had the nerve to post anything since Guy told me to get over myself with all my bitching about Monique last year. Since then I have taken a few film classes and went out and bought “Precious”…. and now stands as one of my favorite films of all time and YES an AMAZING game changing performance by Monique who 1000% deserved the Oscar. I want you both to know Im merely a film student and Ive learned to get over my own opinions and learn from the people who are trying to teach and spread the ideals of film, not just movies, but film. I check IC multiple times a day just to read you guys’ take on real films…because after 3 years i have learned to trust you guys most. Since “Black Swan” was first announced I couldnt wait! I always knew Natalie Portman was going to be amazing and was equally excited about Mila Kunis as well as Barbara Hershey (and glad the Winona rider is getting GOOD work). Ive seen “The Kids are all Right” and still think AB and JM should both be lead contenders for both actress categories. I love Anne Hathaway but feel she will win for eventually portraying Judy Garland. Natalie Portman has always been the best thing about the movie she is in… and honestly if anyone is going to beat Annette Benning its HER… but guys please tell me… is she THAT good?!?! Just FYI I hope she is that good. But I still want Annette to win… Im a gay man in a committed relationship that LOVED Loved loved “Kids”…. and is ready for a movie like this to get maximum exposure. How do u guys feel about the reality of what this movie can win? I think for sure it has a geniune chance at Actress, Supp. Actor, and screenplay. What do u guys think?

  • 48 9-02-2010 at 3:19 am

    Amy said...

    It’s high time that Natalie Portman is recognized as the true talent that she is. That gorgeous and ever-young face has perhaps held her back. I’d love to see her nominated for this.

  • 49 9-02-2010 at 8:56 am

    Robert said...

    So many factors go into the Oscar race. From a strong political angle, Bening is in a very good position (multiple past nominee, on the Academy board, universally praised performance), and it would take someone with near-universal praise to beat someone like her. She’s great in TKAAR and the movie has received strong critical praise. We’ll just have to see what other contenders will reap some of the same praise as the months go on, but at least Portman is also a strong contender. I’ve always been a fan of her work.

  • 50 12-12-2010 at 11:27 pm

    Rick Chung said...

    Natalie Portman shines in the BLACK SWAN

  • 51 10-13-2011 at 7:51 pm

    Damon said...

    Black Swan was one of the best movies that I’ve seen. Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman were both great! I can say that I have more respect for those who are in ballet. Black Swan was a movie that made you me think about what was happening. I got lost a few times, but I got it eventually. Maybe I should see it again just to be sure I have all the facts. I know that the Blockbuster Movie Pass was released earlier this month! I am really excited because the Blockbuster Movie Pass gives customers a huge selection of DVDs like Black Swan, along with thousands of TV shows and games by mail. Since it is being offered by DISH Network (who is also my employer), there are 20 channels that are included with the Movie Pass in addition to the thousands of movies and shows that you can stream to your TV or PC! Blockbuster also has many stores that you can exchange DVDs at and Blu-Rays are included! For all that, $10 per month is a great deal!