Review of Black Swan
January 10, 2011
Well-acted and disturbing, Black Swan is a film that gives fleeting, peripheral glimpses of greatness.
The drive for balletic perfection can drive a sane person mad—and cause a slightly mad person to lose her mind completely. With the exception of when its actresses are pretending to dance, The Black Swan is a well-acted, disturbing film that gives fleeting, peripheral glimpses of greatness.
Nina (Natalie Portman) lands the role of her life when she is cast as the Swan Queen in her company’s presentation of Swan Lake. The closer she gets to perfection, the more she loses herself, the more she slips into the character—literally. Nina’s ballet director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is determined to break her of her weakness and encourages her to lose control of herself. Lily (Mila Kunis), the company’s new up-and-coming dancer who is nipping at Nina’s heals, drives her further from herself and deeper into the character of the Swan Queen.
Most of The Black Swan takes place on the dance floor. Ballet is a challenging craft: most ballerinas would agree that it takes years to even scrape the surface of the dance style and that it is never perfected. It is arguably the most challenging dance style that uses emotive expression. The smallest details in ballet are toiled over: the correct placement of the head relative to the shoulder, shape of the hand, and extension of the neck are skills that ballet dancers hone for years.
The dance scenes are frustrating for viewers of the film who have either danced ballet or enjoy watching it and know the difference between expression through dance and an attempt at expression through dance. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis do the latter. It may seem a small nit to pick, but the movie is about elite ballet dancers and much of The Black Swan is expressed through dance alone.
Much of the emotion of The Black Swan is supposed to be expressed through the dance, not just during it. We are supposed to infer Nina’s emotional breakdown from Portman’s dancing en pointe, not from simply watching her act out an emotional scene. If she cannot dance the emotions, how can I be expected to feel them?
The filmmakers chose actresses whose dance skills would earn a C+ grade at best and asked them to emote through the world’s most disciplined and challenging dance style while standing in the slippers of Maria Tallchief or Margot Fonteyn in one of the most iconic ballets of all time. This is asking for the impossible from these actresses, and it is disruptive to the quality of the film. Portman is asked to convey the majority of her character’s emotions through dance, but her ballet skills are substandard. This inevitably causes Portman’s acting performance overall to suffer.
If a phenomenal actor like Johnny Depp was asked to learn to play the guitar in six months and then asked to play—without post production and sound editing—with the emotional persuasion and skill of Jimi Hendrix, he may be able to get most of the notes right but would undoubtedly make mistakes that would be detrimental to his performance. That is essentially equivalent to what Natalie Portman was expected to do. The Black Swan’s director, Darren Aronofsky, made the dance-version equivalent of a fight movie in which none of the actors had ever taken an honest punch and were not expected to take any during filming.
Aronofsky’s dismissal of the importance of the dancing is a dirty shame; it is a port-wine stain on an otherwise strikingly beautiful film. Portman’s portrayal of Nina’s mental degradation touches on confusing, skims across fragility, reaches toward heart breaking, and finally lands on a penetrating sense of the disturbing. There were moments toward the end of the film in which I lost myself in Nina’s madness, but all of these moments occurred when Portman was not dancing. Kunis’s Lily is erotic, narcissistic, and—even though nothing she does ever overtly expresses it—appears to be wildly dangerous.
Despite some plot points that border on the supernatural, the plot feels very natural overall, which is a tribute to the quality of the writing. Writers Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin use Heinz’s story to captivate their audience. I wanted to know what was happening to Nina, why she was so fragile, if she was really sprouting feathers, if she was actually having random lesbian affairs—or if it was all in her mind. Nina’s interaction with her mother (Barbara Hershey) left the uneasy scent of Norman Bates in my nose.
Even the cinematography waxes and wanes through different emotional states, challenging the audience’s perceptions. Cinematographer Matthew Labitique and director Darren Aronofsky shy away from obvious cinematographic clichés such as making a room dark when the mood of the film is sinister. Instead, a reflective shot implies a distorted point of view, and a peeking shot makes the audience strain to see what’s going on—thus forcing their attention to one aspect of the scene.
If you think a barre is a place where people drink, an assemblé is a group of people, and attitude is something a teenaged girl gives, see The Black Swan. The incredible acting and beautiful cinematography will sweep you away. If you were just struck with a need to warm up, jump, and then stick one leg in the air, The Black Swan may be two mouthfuls of ipecac for every sip of Cristal.