01 December 2010

The Birth of the Black Swan

***** (5 stars)

I’ve been starring at this page for twenty minutes. How do you review a movie that begs you to keep its secret? What can I say that won’t give anything away? That will preserve the purity and excitement of seeing it for the first time in a darkened theatre? I can tell you that my Best of 2010 list just got a lot more complicated.
Provocative director Darren Aronofsky’s 5th feature is “Black Swan” , a psychological drama set in the world of classical ballet (don't let that dissuade you guys, there's plenty for you as well).  Nina (Natalie Portman) is a rising star in the City Ballet company dreaming of being cast in a lead role, determined towards perfection, but with the timidness usually found in children and not in the cut throat world of professional dance.  When a new dancer enters the company (Mila Kunis), Nina's already fragile mind is threatened. Is she going mad or is her paranoia real?
After learning of this movie last year, I read very little about it, avoided all trailers, and only visited the viral companion site once (It’s pretty cool and doesn’t give much away. Hint: Type in the names of characters to reveal more information). It was a total media blackout on my end and I couldn’t have been happier! This movie should just happen to you. I’ve tried my best to avoid spoilers or, for that matter, any real information on story below. However, I do discuss the film (isn’t that why I’m here?) so proceed at your own risk.

Comparisons to Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” have been well publicized but I think a bit misplaced. Besides ballet and the occasional horrific moment in “Black Swan”, the two films are night and day. Instead, I think this film owes more to “Carrie” and the early work of Roman Polanski, especially “Repulsion”. Is it scary? At times, but it’s more haunting. The little nuances of each character, of the art direction (check out the background of almost any scene for additional insight to the character), the use of sound and editing, all create an atmosphere that pulls the audience into the twisted vision of both the director and characters. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique has worked on all of Aronofsky’s films, as well as “Gothika”, “Iron Man 1 & 2”, “Inside Man”, and “The Number 23”. Here he references 70s exploitation flicks with his use of low level lighting and close ups. In fact, the majority of the film is shot in close up and mid shots; keeping the audience inside the mind of Nina. The bustle of the camera advances our anxiety and nervousness. We are given an experience, a film that will crawl inside our minds and infect our brains. It is impossible to shake off.

[side note: I did enjoy the use of the “Suspiria” theme song in the trailers for “Black Swan”, but I think it was more a wink than a nod]
The film is belongs to Natalie Portman and it is hers to lose. Everyone else is a supporting player to her tour de force performance.  Portman can cry. She’s pretty good at it too. What’s really impressive is her transformation in this film. She looks like a ballerina (she studied dance until age 12), her body long and sinewy. Every thought and feeling reads on her face, at times making the audience uncomfortable. I love her. She seems like someone I would want to be friends with. We could chat about books or politics over yummy vegan fare and gossip about boys. There have been some baubles along the way (“Anywhere but Here”, “Star Wars”- don’t send your letters, those movies never needed to be made) but the highlights far outweigh. Must viewing:  “Leon/The Professional” (get the European version, “Leon”, if you can), “Beautiful Girls”, “Closer” (a double feature of this with “Black Swan” is sure to lead to heavy drinking), “V for Vendetta”, “Brothers”. I have high hopes for “Your Highness” and “Hesher” (both out next year I believe), but am worried about “Thor”. Dear god, please don’t let that movie hurt her.

The biggest surprise though may be Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey. Kunis has always been a comedic actress and one I don’t pay a lot of attention to. She’s talented; I loved her in “That ‘70s Show” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, but was unprepared for what she was capable of. By contrast, Hershey is a seasoned actress with multiple awards and nominations under her belt. Here, she is truthfully frightening. Vincent Casell is the perfect smarmy, talented ballet director and I expect him to be brilliant.
“Black Swan” is another example of when working with the same people pays off instead of hindering the project. From the DP, to the editor (Andrew Weisblum), to the composer (Clint Mansell- someone give this guy an Oscar nomination already), have all worked with Aronofsky before. New to the crew, Art Director David Stein should be praised as well.
A must see in the theatre. Perhaps I’ll see you there when I go again on Friday!


  1. I will be acquiring this through nefarious means some time tonight, if I can find it, and ONLY because A) I know the theaters where I live won't be playing it (they didn't even show THE WRESTLER), and B) because I plan on buying it on DVD anyway, since I normally support anything Aronofsky does. Can't wait to see it!

  2. I too cannot wait to own this movie! I don't know how much repeat viewing I can give it. Much like Aronofsky's other work, I tend to watch it once, buy it, then I don't watch it again for a few years. So few filmmakers are able to create such feeling from the audience. Kind of like "The Fountain"- I love it, will duel for it, but still am unable to watch it again.

  3. I know what you mean. To me, REQUIEM is very re-watchable though. I've seen that one quite a few times, by myself or with other people. The others, though, not so much. They're too depressing! Anyway, I can't find BLACK SWAN online anywhere, but I'm gonna keep trying, unless one of the shitty theaters where I live decides to play it.

    By the way, the "Suspiria song" is actually a lullaby version of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake". The Suspiria theme would have been awesome though, since it's the first movie that came to mind when I heard that Aronofsky was doing a ballet-related film.

  4. Susperia theme was in the first teaser trailers for the film. Good luck finding the movie!