Black Swan

In ballet, the term Tombe means ‘to glide’. From that one word it isn’t too difficult to create a subtitle for this film review:

Watching Black Swan is to watch a woman glide into madness on West 63rd Street.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a member of the dance company performing in the New York State Theater in New York’s Lincoln Center (for those of you who don’t live in Manhattan, that’s the tie in with W.63rd St) . The company isn’t doing well financially, so drastic measures must be taken. The lead ballerina, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) is pushed into retirement. The artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces that the new season will open with a modernized version of Swan Lake, and that he will be naming a successor for the lead ballerina position.

It will definitely help you to understand the film if you have a working knowledge of the story of Swan Lake, the ballet. It isn’t a requirement, so if you already know the story you can skip to the next paragraph, or you may read my condensed, truncated, and quite likely inaccurate, version. The story is that a beautiful young princess is turned into a swan called the Swan Queen by an evil sorcerer. The spell can only be broken, if this swan is kissed by a prince with a pure heart who truly loves the Swan Queen. A Prince Siegfried does see the Swan Queen and is smitten. But before the spell can be broken, and the princess returned to human form , the Prince is seen kissing another woman whom he thinks is the Swan Queen. Unfortunately, the Swan Queen sees this kiss and is devastated. So she kills herself.

That’s the story of Swan Lake, the ballet. This magnificent film, directed by Darren Aronofsky, takes the Swan Lake story and surrounds it with a different story, which is the descent into madness by the ballerina who wins the role of the Swan Queen.

Portman is electric as the young and sweet woman who quickly descends into madness. The dance role calls for the lead dancer to actually dance two roles – The Swan Queen or the White Swan, as well as the Black Swan. The black and the white things are no accident as they represent the two sides of the same person otherwise known as the good and the evil. But that is something of an oversimplification. From the dance perspective, the White Swan represents innocence, pure heart, and sweetness. The Black Swan represents the dark sides of passion, sensuality, and eroticism. So the dancer must be capable of both.

While preparing for the opening of Swan Lake, Nina Sayers must struggle with her own demons which stem from four separate sources:

A) Her manipulative and controlling Mother, Erica Sayers, played by Barbara Hershey. Mom is a former dancer herself who is constantly hectoring and micro-managing Nina. Erica wants desperately for Portman’s Nina to succeed, but she won’t allow Nina her space, or even a few moments to enjoy herself. Hershey wears her hair severely pulled back, and her physical presence is almost frightening.

B) Thomas Leroy, the artistic director of the ballet. It is he that holds all the power over these dancers’ careers. He knows what he is doing artistically, but he not only drives them as dancers, but because he is himself a captive of his own sexual drive, he brings that element into his relationship with his dancers. There’s no doubt that he is a sexual predator in this film.

C) Lily (Mila Kunis) is the presumed and perceived rival for the role of the Swan Queen. She’s new to the company, and Nina thinks she is in a life or death struggle with Lily for the role. Lily is the personification of evil, at least in Nina’s mind. We the viewers aren’t as sure. But one thing is certain and that is that Lily outwardly has the necessary elements for the Black Swan role. She is quite a sexual huntress, she’s experienced, and is aggressive while Nina is none of these.

D) Nina Sayers herself. She is insecure, and struggles with her desires. As Leroy tells her, “The only person standing in your way is you.”. So to go after the role, she has to develop internally, she must attempt to become The Black Swan.

Aronofsky superbly manipulates we viewers as well. He deploys black and white as the predominate colors even though this a color film. He employs mirrors throughout, and on more than a few occasions you will be disoriented because of this.

He has his cameras following Sayers on many occasions. This ‘places’ us directly behind Sayers as she weaves her way backstage, in and out of dressing rooms, corridors, bathrooms, bars, and even her own apartment.

From this perspective we have no choice but to follow and follow closely.  So at least, as we follow her, we see what she sees. We are almost in her shoes.

Dreams and reality blur and change places. Only because Aronofsky uses this tactic so often do we come to recognize that what we see might not be real. It could be just Nina’s imagination. But at the same time, we also realize that Nina is losing her mind, she is self-destructing, and we know it in no uncertain terms.

But you can’t take your eyes off the screen. Even if ballet isn’t something you like or understand, even if you know that watching someone disintegrate mentally isn’t the least bit pleasant, you’re held captive. That is of course the essence of a successful movie.

We must give Aronofsky major kudos for the way this film was put together. The thrills and the terror begin slowly but his pace will pick up towards a crescendo. That’s the editing. The lighting is often on the same page of the story as we are constantly in and out of shadows. Constantly we are pointed towards – light and dark, black and white, and good and evil.

Even as Sayers achieves the perfection of dancing the twin roles of the Swan Lake ballet, and the Lincoln Center audience is wildly cheering for her, calling out her name again and again, we, as the film audience know something that the ballet’s audience does not. Meaning that the ending does not comes as a surprise. But that doesn’t make it any less than shocking.

On your dance menu, no pun intended, for this film are a lesbian lovemaking scene, a female masturbation scene, and other things like self mutilations. In truth, this film is no walk in the park. If you come to see the film, you can expect to be frightened.  But don’t let that stop you. It is a  masterful film, and a certainty to be nominated for a number of Oscars. Don’t miss it, this film is rated ‘R’ , so definitely don’t bring the kids.


4 thoughts on “Black Swan

  1. Great piece, JMM. I’m trying to write a piece on this myself and it’s hard; I left the film with such mixed feelings — more mixed on the question of perfection and madness than the film, which I agree is excellent.

  2. Thanks didion. Perfection is ephemeral and will likely dance before us always just out of reach. Or once achieved , can never be achieved again. But one can always just go for it.

    I look forward to your review of Black Swan.


  3. Thanks for reading my review of this film. I greatly enjoyed reading yours, and look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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