Darren Aronofsky scored a major hit with 2008’s The Wrestler about an aging professional wrestler dealing with aging and not having to wrestle again in the wake of a legendary rematch that would give him a comeback. The film helped resurrect the career of its star Mickey Rourke while Aronofsky won back some acclaim following the mixed reaction towards 2006’s The Fountain. For his fifth feature film, Aronofsky enters into the world of ballet as he creates a companion piece for The Wrestler. Except this time around, it’s about a young ballerina who finally gets the top role for Swan Lake only to have her role threatened by another young ballerina and her own state of mind for the film entitled Black Swan.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky with a screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin that is based on Heinz’s original story. Black Swan follows a young ballerina who works for the New York City ballet company as her chance to play the lead for the production of Swan Lake is happening. While she is known to be talented and has all the elements to play the White Swan, a new ballerina emerges in the company as she has all of the elements to play the Black Swan. While dealing with her overbearing mother, a former ballerina, and a demanding ballet director. The young woman would suddenly descend into madness. Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, and Vincent Cassel. Black Swan is a surreal yet eerie film from Darren Aronofsky.
Nina Sayer (Natalie Portman) is a young ballerina in her early 20s who spends her days working for the New York City ballet company with Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) as its director. Though Nina still lives with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina, Nina dreams of being the lead in a ballet. Then when the news came that veteran ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) is leaving the company after a falling out with Leroy. Leroy announces plans to create a new ballet for Swan Lake as he searches for the lead. With Nina having all of the elements to play the White Swan, she doesn’t have the qualities to play the Black Swan.
While Leroy chooses Nina to play the Swan Queen, Leroy tries to get the technically-proficient Nina to loosen up in order to play the Black Swan. Even as Leroy is starting to look at a new ballerina in Lily (Mila Kunis), who has all of the sensual qualities and passion that is needed for the Black Swan. With Nina still struggling to get into the role with Leroy’s creepy suggestions which include for her to masturbate. Nina notices that she has scratch marks all over herself along with cuts. Even as Erica becomes concerned almost to the point of insanity while Nina becomes uncomfortable with Lily’s presence though Lily tries to help Nina for the role of Black Swan.
With Nina becoming more overwhelmed with her attempt to go into the character along with the mysterious scratches and cuts she’s having. Lily tries to offer Nina some relaxation where the two go clubbing and partying one night where everything become surreal. When Nina is late for a rehearsal, it becomes clear that Leroy is already thinking of using Lily as an alternate which only upsets Nina. Even as her relationship with her mother deteriorates along with her own perception of reality. With the night of Swan Lake approaching and Erica becoming more concerned for Nina’s state of mind, Nina decides to do Swan Lake despite Lily’s presence and Leroy’s demands.
While the film can be perceived as a character study of sorts, it’s really a study about madness and how far creativity can destroy the mind. The screenplay dwells into the world of ballet where a director is trying to recreate Swan Lake while trying to get his lead ballerina to go all the way to play the role of the Swan Queen. Yet, it would require two key elements. Technical proficiency and sensuality. Unfortunately for Nina Sayer, she lacks the latter.
Nina starts off a young woman with a child-like personality of sorts as she lives with her mother and lives in a room filled with girlish objects including a ballerina music box and stuffed animals. While there’s no back story about her years of dancing, there's no need for back story as the audience knows that she is a young dancer that has worked for years. While she is seen as an innocent dancer that doesn’t like to go into rumors or insult other dancers. It’s also her flaw when she tries to audition for the lead role of Swan Lake through an innocent form of flirtation towards Leroy.
Once she gets the part, not everyone is happy about the news. Notably the character of Beth MacIntyre, the former ballerina lead who is on her way out as Nina tries not to insult or hurt her. Erica meanwhile, is a troubled stage mother who makes these strange, dark paintings for a living while is extremely concerned about Nina’s fingernails and cuts along with the mysterious rash on her back. This would eventually affect Nina’s state of mind as everything that she is would start to unravel through Leroy’s attempts to get her to be sensual as well as the presence of Lily.
Lily is first seen as someone who is more social, more outgoing, and is willing to engage into conversations. While she is also a great dancer, she isn’t as disciplined or as technically-proficient as Nina. Yet, she is able to win over many peers though Nina feels threatened despite Lily’s good-natured persona. Lily would try to break Nina out of her shell but it would have repercussions as the world surrounding Nina would be confusing. While there were early hints of Nina seeing a double, it would intensify along with the mystery of the rash she is having. Even as it came to the climatic Swan Lake dance where it would go into a world of surrealism.
While the screenplay explores its central character as well as the demanding world of ballet. It’s the direction of Darren Aronofsky that really brings the story to life. While with any film that is about ballet will always have a reference to the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger 1948 classic The Red Shoes. Aronofsky doesn’t use many of those reference except a few key shots. Notably when Nina spins around from her point of view. Yet, Aronofsky is more interested in what ballet dancers do for their body and how dedicated they are into honing their craft. Even as he has shots of Nina’s feet as it’s on the ground spinning along with the movement of the ballet. The climatic ballet scene is shot as if the audience is in the middle of the ballet as a participant.
Aronofsky’s engaging direction really goes into the mind of the protagonist as she is falling apart. Even when he knows when to use humor at the right places. Still, he is intent on trying to figure out what is happening to this young girl. Nina in many ways is like some of the other characters that Aronofsky had featured in his previous films. She has the obsessive nature of Pi’s Max Cohen and the determination of The Wrestler’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Yet, she will also have manic mind of Requiem for a Dream’s Sara Goldfarb. While Aronofsky said that this film is a companion piece to The Wrestler. There are similarities since both Randy and Nina use their bodies and physicality to express their art form. While Randy and the character of Beth MacIntyre are individuals who are on their way out due to aging. Nina is at a place where she’s arrived.
Aronofsky uses very deep close-ups into Nina’s body to see how the body reacts to her changes. Even with the use of visual effects where Nina goes into this literal transition into the character she plays whether its real or not. Aronofsky’s take on surrealism is a bit dream-like as the film starts off with a nice dream and then becomes a nightmare. Aronofsky even has to use his camera to play mind games with the audience about whether what Nina is seeing or feeling is real or a fantasy. He leaves all of that to interpretation while he is more interested in seeing this young woman descend into madness. The result isn’t just Aronofsky upping his game as a visual-minded director but also as a storyteller as he creates what is definitely a mesmerizing yet hypnotic film.
Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique does an amazing job with the film’s photography that is mostly straightforward for many of the film’s exterior NYC settings and the interior scenes at the ballet rehearsal studio and at Nina’s home apartment. Even as it features a bit of grain to give it a rougher look while for the film’s more dazzling scenes like the club scene and the final ballet. The camera work is truly a marvel in the way the lighting plays to the film’s protagonist emotions as there is some natural lighting early on to more artificial, stylish images for her descent. Libatique’s work is truly the highlight of the film’s technical department.
Editor Andrew Weisblum does an excellent job with the film‘s editing as it is paced in a mostly leisurely approach for the non-ballet scenes. When it came by to do the ballet, it becomes rhythmic as it plays to the movement and music. Weislbum’s cutting also plays to the element of suspense with jump-cuts, dissolves, and other fade-to-black transitions to create an element of confusion in the mind of its protagonist. It is definitely some masterful work by Weisblum.
Production designer Therese DePrez, along with set decorator Tora Peterson and art director David Stein, creates some fantastic set pieces for the film. Notably Nina’s room that is filled with girlish objects while Erica’s room is filled with paintings. The set for the ballet of Swan Lake is definitely dazzling for its look as it would play up to the surrealistic tone of the film. Costume designers Kate Mulleavy, Laura Mulleavy, and Amy Westcott do a spectacular with the film‘s costumes from the more innocent, casual look that Nina sports with light clothing to the black clothing that Lily wears. Even as the costumes in the ballet scene and in the parties would play to the personalities that goes on throughout the film as is another of the film’s technical highlights.
Visual effects supervisor Dan Schrecker does some brilliant visual effects for some of the film‘s surreal images as the character of Nina starts to transform into a literal version of the Black Swan, whether it was real or not. Even with the way the skin appears on her to move is dazzling as it great effects done in a very minimal way. Sound designers Brian Emrich and Craig Henighan create some great sound design sequences for the film. Notably in the way it plays up to the film’s suspenseful tone as the sound helps set the mood for Nina’s emotional/mental descent.
Longtime Aronofsky music composer Clint Mansell creates a dazzling yet enchanting score to the film while providing some fantastic arrangements to Pytor Ilyich Tschaikovsky’s composition for Swan Lake. Mansell creates some lush themes for Nina’s innocence along with more broader and heavier themes for Nina’s descent. The use of Tschaikovsky’s music is more intensified for its performance as well in playing the drama of Nina’s world. The soundtrack features some hypnotic electronic music that includes pieces by the Chemical Brothers that heighten the relationship between Nina and Lily in the club scene.
The casting by Mary Vernieu is definitely amazing as the film features cameos from Aronofsky regulars Mark Margolis and Aronofsky’s parents as ballet patrons who attend a party while Stanley Herman reprises his perverse role of Uncle Hank from Requiem for a Dream. Other notable small roles include Ksenia Solo as a gossip-talking ballerina, Benjamin Millepied (who is also the film’s choreographer) as the lead ballet dancer, and as club suitors, Toby Hemingway and Sebastian Stan are very good in their small roles. Winona Ryder is great in a small but terrifying role as Beth, a veteran dancer who is on her way out as she deals with being replace to the point of becoming an extremely psychotic woman trying to bring fear to Nina.
Barbara Hershey is also really good as Erica, Nina’s mother who is obsessed with Nina wanting to get her part as way to fulfill her own missed opportunities only to realize how far Nina is descending. There’s times where Hershey can become creepy and at times, scary yet she brings some unexpected sympathy to her character who is really worried about her daughter unaware that she is probably responsible for the way she constrained her daughter. It’s a remarkable performance from the veteran Hershey as she is getting a real, meaty role. Vincent Cassel is awesome as the creepy yet demanding Thomas Leroy. While his idea of direction can range from just being helpful when Nina feels despondent while he can also be cruel. It’s a very complex role from Cassel, who really sells the idea of a man that can go too far when he is trying to get Nina to become sexually open. There’s a crudeness to this role as Cassel is superb in playing someone who is trying to create a great work only to realize that he can destroy someone’s persona.
Mila Kunis gives what is definitely her finest film role of her career as Lily. Kunis exudes all of the sexuality, the passion, the joy, and liveliness that is needed for the Black Swan. Even off the set where she is just fun, full of life, and even being sympathetic as she offers Nina friendship. Kunis also brings some light humor to the role while also reveling into the dark side when she tries to get Nina to chill out. It’s a real spectacular role from Kunis, who had been known for many as Jackie Burkhart from That 70’s Show for eight seasons and then breakout in the Judd Apatow-produced comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. With this performance, this is Kunis finally stepping as an actress that can really prove she can bring a lot more to the table when its needed.
Finally, there’s Natalie Portman in what is definitely a tour-de-force performance as Nina Sayer. Portman really goes into this young woman’s troubled mind where she does start out as this child-like woman. When she tries to break out of that child-like persona, Portman truly exemplify Nina’s innocence as well as her curiosity. When she is trying to get into the role of the Black Swan, it is done with a natural awkwardness as she tries to masturbate at one point while begins to show fear as she sees this dark persona. Portman really sells the fear of her character while is more at ease in playing her dark doppelganger whenever she pops up for a few seconds during the film. It’s a really strange yet mystifying performance from Natalie Portman as it is also one of her most defining roles of her career.
Black Swan is an eerie, hypnotic, and exhilarating film from Darren Aronofsky that features top-notch performance from Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. While it may not have the hyperactive visuals of Requiem for a Dream nor the grit of The Wrestler. It is a film that is Aronofsky stepping up his game as a director who can truly warp the minds of his audience. Fans of Natalie Portman will no doubt rank her performance very high while the film also gives Mila Kunis a real breakout performance. In the end, Black Swan is a haunting yet dazzling film from Darren Aronofsky.
Darren Aronofsky Films: Pi - Requiem for a Dream - The Fountain - The Wrestler - Noah - mother!
Related Reviews: The Red Shoes - The Auteurs #2: Darren Aronofsky
© thevoid99 2010
Saw it, enjoyed it. The only complaint I have is that the movie lacks the fire and passion that it preaches to its protagonist. The only scene that moved me was the one where Nina goes into the bathroom stall to tell her mother about the news. Natalie Portman is deserving of the Oscar for that one single scene!
Well Castor, I sort of agree with you on that complaint. Yet, I thought it was necessary for her character early on. I do agree that Natalie should get an Oscar (which I'm doubting at the moment). Notably for the fact that I think she's better when she gets into dark characters. I love it when she plays evil.
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