Director Darren Aronofsky’s fifth feature, “Black Swan,” is set in the world of a New York City ballet company. Natalie Portman stars as Nina, an up-and-coming ballet dancer struggling to master her first leading role in Swan Lake. Like Aronofsky’s previous film The Wrestler, this is about sacrificing everything for your ‘art’, whatever the price.
On my first viewing, when the film came out, I was sceptical of Black Swan, which seemed overrated and hollow. I have since rewatched and read more about it, and even listened to a lecture on the film. This is my revised opinion. I still don’t believe it’s a great film, instead I would call it a good film.
Ballerina Nina Sayers has the talent to take the lead in a new production of Swan Lake, but does she have the passion? A story about putting your body at risk to entertain an audience.
Nina lives with her obsessively hovering mother (Barbara Hershey), who used to be a ballerina herself. She loves her daughter very much, but attends to Nina’s career with a suffocating attention to detail. The mother is over-protective, projecting her own lost ambitions onto Nina. Is she living through her daughter? Or jealous of her? We never know.
Even though her mother is probably encouraging her to follow in her footsteps, it still must be comforting to lose yourself in a role as Nina does, as Nina seems not to know who she is. Perhaps she is trying to find out who she wants to be.
The Mila Kunis character, Lily, pictured above on left, is the opposite of Nina, relaxed, at ease with her surroundings, promiscuous, she is everything that Nina is not. Nina is still a child, and the film is kind of her belated teenage rebellion.
In a lecture by a psychologist I attended following a screening, it was interesting to hear her take on what was wrong with Nina, her interpretation was Nina is suffering a psychosis. The physical suffering may be a way of dealing with the mental pain, to channel her thoughts towards the body.
Her interpretation of Winona Ryder’s character was that she deliberately walks in front of a car, perhaps to justify to herself she won’t be a dancer anymore in the ballet.
On talk show Charlie Rose, Natalie Portman talked about why she wanted to make the film, the director is one reason, and also that she always wanted to do a dance film, having danced when she was younger, and movement for her is such a cinematic expression. To convey through image, movement and sound what can’t be put into words. Portman sees Nina as a child who is becoming a woman. A world where they want to keep them as little girls, not to have breasts or hips. They call them girls, not women or dancers. They ask these dancers to conform to certain standards. For a very female art there is a male domination of it.
It’s about finding pleasure for herself, rather than pleasing other people, that allows her transformation to a woman, and allows her to kill the little girl.
Darren Aronofsky in the same interview comments on the Vincent Cassel character, a teacher who uses his sexuality to manipulate the girls, but justifies his behaviour by calling it art.
Not that Poppy in Happy-go-lucky (2008) in any way resembles Natalie Portman’s character Nina, though one similar trait strikes me, the ability to will yourself into certain behaviour, be it happy, or in Nina’s case, a perfect dancer.
I think your true self will eventually reveal itself if you try and behave unlike your natural self for an extended amount of time. A lot of effort and stressful moments to be someone you are not. The question is, if you decide to be different, do you want to lose yourself, can you become who you want to be? I don’t think Nina could cope with it all. I guess the best performers manage to pull off being another person (albeit briefly during production, but we don’t see the hidden anxiety of acting normally, only the finished movie).
Nina can’t escape from who she is, I think maybe this is one of the messages of Black Swan, that performing can cause anxiety and stress.
As Sati writes at cinematic corner: “We travel down the rabbit hole of insanity along with Nina, we are scared, happy and exhilarated when she is.”
As Roger Ebert writes in his review:
“The tragedy of Nina, and of many young performers and athletes, is that perfection in one area of life has led to sacrifices in many of the others. At a young age, everything becomes focused on pleasing someone (a parent, a coach, a partner), and somehow it gets wired in that the person can never be pleased. One becomes perfect in every area except for life itself.”
If I had to find a flaw with the film, it’s that people don’t seem to notice at the ballet school that Nina is unwell, and this to me is unrealistic.
Not as memorable and original for me as Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece Requiem for a dream (2000), which I will look at next week.
I agree with pgtipsonfilms, who writes: “Whilst Requiem is harrowingly realistic, Black Swan becomes a little farcical towards the end. This is a pity for cast and director alike. (…)it fails to detail the positive aspects of the industry. Instead, the movie focuses upon many of the negative stereotypes, such as eating disorders and overbearing parents.”
NS dance critic’s verdict of Black Swan also found faults with the film: “In fact, Mila Kunis in the bad-girl role doesn’t have to (dance); she just has to look toned and hot. Natalie Portman does pretty well as the lead, with her elongated neck and etiolated look, but any ballet-goer would notice that the arch of the spine, hold of the arms and articulation of the hip are not those of a professional dancer. These arguments over how representative or realistic the film is are, I think, of limited interest.
In any case, they have short answers: the negative stereotypes are indeed hyperbolic and unrepresentative, but contain germs of truth, and the actors need only convince as dancers within the terms of the film, which they do. More interesting to me is a different perspective–Black Swan appears to be part of a long film tradition in which ballet is associated with madness, sickness, torture, the paranormal and death, and where stock characters recur: the monstrous maestro, the evil twin or jealous rival, the dying maiden.”
Director Darren Aronofsky:
“I just thought it was an interesting contrast to take something as beautiful as ballet and then add horror to it. But then I realized it wasn’t that much different than actual ballets. And if you look at the great stories of the ballet – Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet — they’re tragic, they’re gothic, they’re, you know, have horrific elements.”
And Aronofsky says that thrill may just motivate moviegoers who’ve never seen a ballet performance in their lives to check out the real thing.
I think what held me back from truly falling in love with the film is that ballet at the end of the day is not really my cup of tea. You don’t have to know anything about ballet, to find the film interesting. Black Swan is well worth watching, a good character study. The narrator not being herself means things are not what they seem.
I shouldn’t forget to mention the fantastic, haunting music by composer Clint Mansell, and great performances by all the actors. Natalie Portman won a Golden Globe and Oscar for her portrayal of Nina.
My rating is 7.6
Was my review useful? Have you seen Blak Swan? Let me know what you think about the film, positive or negative
charlierose interviews Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky
Film review, Roger Ebert
Film review, cinematiccorner
Film review, pgtipsonfilms
Bird watch: the NS dance critic’s verdict on Black Swan / Sanjoy Roy / New Statesman (Jan. 24, 2011)