Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Natalie Portman, Mila
Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 108 Minutes
Release Date: March 29, 2011
“...I was perfect...”
Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan defies conventional description...and that may be the biggest understatement I've written in my near 15 year career in film criticism.
It's a bold, brash exercise in obsession and perfectionism, and thank the Lord for it. I've had my fill of timid movies over the years. I'd rather see a film really roll the dice and go for it all in frame after frame, and really take the risk of complete and utter failure rather than treading oh-so-carefully on safe ground far away from the abyss. True, some movies that do that fall, and fall hard. But when one succeeds, you know you've really been in the presence of something spectacular and brave.
And if there was ever a filmmaker primed to give us just that kind of vision, it's Darren Aronofsky. His debut film Pi was made for less than what most people would spend on a used car. Yet it was one of the boldest first films imaginable. Never mind the lack of money, he made a movie about finding mathematical patterns in everything, and possibly even discovering the true name of God as a result.
He understands obsessive characters, and that's what made him perfect for Black Swan. In the first place, it's set in the world of ballet, which I only have knowledge of from Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes, but it seems to me a world where being absolutely perfect is only considered average.
It's also where young ingénues grow into world renowned stars and then into has-beens in far less time than I've even been on this earth. You either desperately need a first chance, or you desperately need just one LAST chance. For everybody in between, you can only stay thin, hungry and focused on your grueling routines in pursuit of that ever elusive perfection.
Nina Sayers (Portman) is one of those in between. Hardworking, obsessed, and quiet, she lives with her mother (Hershey), but really lives FOR her art. But obsession can only take you so close to perfection before you break right through and become something else altogether.
The leader of her company Thomas Leroy (Cassel) dreams as big as his stars...he wants to “reimage” the classics, starting with perhaps the best known ballet of all, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. He wants one star to play both leads: the innocent, virginal white swan, and the demonic black swan that destroys her. Nina, with her sad eyes and silent, graceful innocence, would be perfect for the white swan, but how could she ever play the black swan?
Nina also sees perhaps a bit of past and future in her company. On her way out is one-time phenom Beth McIntyre (Ryder), who learns the cruel reality of being a ballet star who dares to start getting a little old. On her way in is a young, brash star in Lily (Kunis), who may not have the natural grace of Nina but also is not as easily intimidated as her. Her style is more reckless and open...she feels the dance as opposed to attaining the rigorous perfection of it.
It sounds like the kind of showbiz tale you've heard many times, but this is far from accurate. What Aronofsky has presented us is no less a portrait of Nina's own mind as it loses its grip on reality in pursuit of her dreams. Being cast in the lead role is one thing, but finding the true darkness in the black swan character brings her and the audience into a surreal nightmare of loss of self.
Natalie Portman's performance in this movie rightly won an Oscar...it's nothing short of heroic. Very few actresses could possibly completely abandon themselves in a role that is pushed this far towards parody and manage to keep it emotionally and dramatically centered throughout, but what she did was purely astounding. And that's not even considering the rigorous ten month training schedule she endured to make herself convincing as a ballerina. Physically, emotionally or mentally, there is not one false moment from her in the entire movie.
But equally impressive is director Aronofsky, who goes for broke in scene after scene and pushes through the audience's perception of just what is too far over the top. His camerawork is so fluid and energetic that the camera's eye is almost the other leading character in the film. He must have known he was making a film that could have come dangerously close to impossibly eccentric and weird, but he bravely respects no boundaries, and turned a story that might have been a merely enjoyably good film into a masterpiece.
I can't pretend this movie will entice all audiences as it did me...I could easily see some succumbing to the weight of the vision and not wanting to follow through to the end. But if you give Black Swan a chance, you'll see not only one of the greatest film performances in recent memory, but an exercise in pure artistic abandonment. It's like watching somebody jump off the Empire State Building and manage to survive without a scratch...it's terrifying, and might make you question why anyone would take such a risk...but when it turns out so right, you can't help but breathe a long sigh of amazement and applaud.
BONUS TRIVIA: If you watch the end credits, you'll see each character getting two credits; their actual role in the movie, and their Swan Lake role.
Given the artistic choices by Aronofsky and his cinematographer, Black Swan isn't destined to be one of the best looking Blu-ray's you'll own. The transfer is fine, but the film stock used was high contrast, so there is noticeable grain and texture throughout. Through much of the movie, colors seem a little muted, but that's so when the fantasy really becomes reality, everything can come through with much more vividity and life.
The DTS HD track is important in how it brings life into the deepening madness of Aronofsky's world. Being a ballet-oriented picture, music is important, of course, but in one regard, it's almost a horror film, too, and the audio mix delivers on the punch and dynamic range you'd expect from such a picture. Spoken words are cleanly delivered throughout. A nice listening experience.
The extras are plentiful, but most a little short. The best one is “Metamorphosis”, which is Darren Aronofsky's personal video diary of his shoot. Next best is “Ten Years in the Making”, in which Aronofsky and Natalie Portman discuss the journey that took this vision from its original seed all the way to Oscar glory.
Then, there are a number of short vignettes on the dance, production design, and cast and crew profiles with the stars and people behind the scenes. The original trailer is included, as well as some BD Live extras including “Live Lookup” powered by IMDB. Lastly, there is a digital copy disc.
I've said Black Swan defies conventional description...even summarizing it as a show business horror film is too flip and easy. It's really an expression of obsession turning to madness and how the compulsive pursuit to be perfect can destroy body and mind. You will never forget Natalie Portman's performance or the brash, surreal vision of Darren Aronofsky.