‘Black Swan’ movie review: Natalie Portman rises to challenge in ‘most mature’ Darren Aronofsky effort
Darren Aronofsky has one of the most amazing talents for not only crafting impeccable works of fiction but also for framing these works against the backdrop of worlds the average person will never be a part of. In Requiem for a Dream, he took a stylized and brutal eye to the dangerous world of drug addiction. In The Wrestler, he gave us a brilliant and tragic human story set in the world of professional wrestling. In Black Swan, he gave us the fascinating story of one person’s psychological downward spiral within the world of professional ballet.
Black Swan, arguably Aronofsky’s best effort, was surely his most mature up to that time.
‘Black Swan’: Nina and her ‘ballet mother’
Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin’s screenplay tells the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a dancer in a major New York City ballet company. Following the ousting of the company’s diva, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), the head of the company (Vincent Cassel) decides to put on a production of Swan Lake. Nina ends up getting the coveted part of the Swan Queen, even though she is perhaps not the best dancer or the most suited for the role, which requires that she play both the White Swan and the Black Swan.
As Black Swan progresses, it slowly picks away at the layers of Nina’s life, both at home and as a dancer. While at the ballet company, Nina keeps mostly to herself; indeed, she doesn’t seem to be friends with any of the other dancers. We get the impression that it’s not because she doesn’t want to, but that her mother (Barbara Hershey) won’t let her.
Nina’s room looks like that of a six-year-old. Did she ever grow up? Was she ever allowed to? We get the feeling her mother is living vicariously through her; she couldn’t accomplish her dreams of being a star dancer, so Nina must do so in her stead.
What makes Black Swan stand out, however, is not its characters or even its screenplay, but its technical and directorial achievements. This is Darren Aronofsky’s show, and he enthusiastically delivers a full spectacle.
The film’s crucial element is the way Aronofsky peels back Nina’s psyche. Although she’s obviously disturbed from the very beginning, it’s in watching her devolve piece by piece that makes Black Swan such a fascinating film.
Natalie Portman: ‘Visceral’ performance
This accomplishment is in no small part due to Natalie Portman’s performance. Although I don’t think Portman is an especially great actress, when she rises to the challenge, she does so with a visceral force.
Does Nina have what it takes to become the Black Swan? Her dance instructor is dubious despite giving her the part. Nina believes she can, but she has obviously repressed the side of her required to embody the evil creature.
Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the character is key to both this important plot detail and to our understanding the pressure she feels from every corner of her life. Together, Aronofsky and Portman reveal a world of relentless demands, impossible goals, and unbridled ruthlessness, the likes of which are hardly found elsewhere.
Leaving it to the imagination
But what I think I liked best about Black Swan – more than its impeccable directing, or spot-on acting, or even its freshness within the horror genre – was what isn’t revealed, what we don’t know; what we, the viewer, can only infer.
By holding back so much about Nina’s childhood while giving only hints of her relationship with the other girls in the dance company and with her mother – the father is curiously, though perhaps not surprisingly, absent from all this – Aronofsky allows us to construct our own narrative and piece together how Nina Sayers became who she is.
He accomplishes this through both Natalie Portman’s performance and the film’s visual choices: for instance, we only get short glimpses of horror; there’s never a moment to seriously linger on what we’re seeing. In truth, the most effective horror is oftentimes achieved by withholding, not by revealing. Modern horror filmmakers should definitely check out Black Swan.
Complex, multi-layered themes
Aronofsky and the screenwriters’ reticence, in fact, is probably the reason my review is so vague in its details. I feel that Black Swan is a movie that must be seen to be truly understood. It’s one of those rare efforts to which no review could really do justice.
Even after seeing it twice, I am still grappling with its themes. In Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky has crafted a challenging and brilliantly layered work of art that deserves every bit of praise that comes its way.
© Nathan Donarum
Black Swan (2010)
Director: Darren Aronofsky.
Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin.
From an “original story” by Heinz.
Cast: Natalie Portman. Mila Kunis. Vincent Cassel. Barbara Hershey. Winona Ryder. Benjamin Millepied. Ksenia Solo.
Sebastian Stan. Toby Hemingway. Kristina Anapau. Sergio Torrado. Janet Montgomery. Mark Margolis. Tina Sloan.
Black Swan movie cast info via the IMDb.
Natalie Portman Black Swan movie images: Niko Tavernise / Fox Searchlight.