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Sunday, March 6, 2011


Release date in India: March 4, 2011
Director: Darron Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder

“The only person standing in your way is you,” Nina Sayers is told at one point in Black Swan. So what’s the solution? Should she eliminate herself?

These are among the many questions and demons that Nina the ballerina in Black Swan battles as she takes on the role of a lifetime.

Black Swan is set in a New York ballet company which is preparing for a performance of Swan Lake. I know I know, it’s been done to death, admits artistic director Leroy Thomas even as he announces his plans to his team. But this Swan Lake will be different, he assures them. Thomas knows that Nina – fragile and waif-like that she is – would be impeccable as the White Swan. Problem is that he wants the same dancer playing the more vibrant and sensual Black Swan too. Can technically perfect Nina let go of her inhibitions to embrace that role?

A new dancer enters the troupe. Lily (Mila Kunis) compensates for the lacunae in her technique with her unshackled, unbridled style. In her, Thomas sees the potential for his Black Swan. But then one day, alone in his room, Nina reacts unexpectedly and violently to his overtures. Clearly there’s a side to her usually subdued personality that she’s not unleashing. Nina is cast in both roles, with Lily as her alternate. What follows is a story of artistic obsession and insecurities, discipline and a pathetic desire for approval, passionate perfectionism and fatal ambition.

Director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) is not the first person in the world to take up the story of a play mirroring the lives of some of its performers. But there’s nothing predictable about Black Swan and its gut-wrenching, bone-rattling, blood-stirring take on an artist who will go to any lengths to achieve her life’s only goal: “I just want to be perfect.”

Nina’s world is divided between the theatre where she hones her craft and her home where she shares her joys and tears with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself. As is the case with many of our closest relationships, Nina and Erica share both a deep love and a certain resentment towards each other.

The beauty of Black Swan is that there’s very little in it that is obvious or over-stated, and at each step you are left gasping at the possibility that what you just saw was not Nina’s reality but a figment of the imagination of her frail mind. Is this a tale of professional pre-occupations, resentments and rivalries? Or is it just a journey into Nina’s distraught psyche? Is Nina consumed by her passion for her art or by her own troubled soul? Is she schizophrenic, paranoid and delusional or simply a self-destructive method actor? Should an artist be willing to destroy herself in a quest for perfection? And if she ultimately achieves that perfection, would you still call it self-destruction?

The tragedy of Black Swan is heightened by our awareness of some of what Natalie Portman subjected herself to for this role. She reportedly trained for 10 months in ballet for Black Swan and also lost many kilos to achieve Nina’s skinny look. But there’s more to her incredible performance than just its physical attributes. As Nina struggles with the role of the Black Swan in her ballet, you may find yourself (like me) sub-consciously waiting for a facial transformation. What you will get instead is a dance performance where her face is barely seen, where she is the very embodiment of the Black Swan, another human being altogether, acting with every pore of her body and yet not acting at all. She is no longer playing the part of the Black Swan in a stage production of Swan Lake in the film Black Swan. No, my God, she becomes the Black Swan!

If Natalie Portman is brilliant in this film, so is the casting director. Every actor here is well chosen. In a year filled with many outstanding performances, I’d still say Mila Kunis playing Lily was unfairly robbed of an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category. Vincent Cassel as Leroy Thomas too deserves a special mention as the man who drives Nina to be what he knows she can be. When he tells her there should be no boundaries between them, is he being a sleazebag on a casting couch or an obsessive artist himself? Is he genuinely attracted to Nina or is he only driven by a belief that shaking her up and stirring up her mind is the only way to force her to shrug off her shyness on stage?

Aided by this amazing cast, Matthew Libatique’s cinematography and Andrew Weisblum’s editing, Aronofsky has put together a supremely disturbing film.

What Black Swan could have done without though, were the cliches in production design and costume. Innocent Nina is dressed in white; those around her are mostly in black. It’s been a couple of centuries since Tchaikovsky conceptualised Swan Lake in which the White Swan and the Black Swan represent good & innocence contrasted with evil & sensuality. To duplicate that colour scheme in a contemporary stage show of Swan Lake is completely acceptable; but to then transpose that black-is-bad-white-is-good palette on to a modern-day film about the lives of Swan Lake’s cast seems literal and even regressive.

Equally stereotypical and cliched is the director and writing team’s decision to equate virginity with innocence, also suggesting that lack of sexual promiscuity is the same as sexual repression, while the free-spirited woman (Lily) must perforce be an overtly sexual and sexually experimental being. Nina at one point seems to consider some rocking lesbian action between the sheets as a means of “letting go” of her inhibitions on stage. Thomas is concerned about whether she has a boyfriend or not. He even gives her a home assignment one evening: “touch yourself,” he says, then adds, “live a little.” Really Mr Aronofsky, why this silly stereotyping in an otherwise fabulous film?!

And I say FABULOUS although we Indians are being served up a truncated version of Black Swan. Having passed brief shots of good old boy-with-girl action and even allowed a considerable dose of masturbation, our stiff-necked Censor Board has dropped a butcher’s knife on a lesbian sex scene in the film. Now that our courts have decriminalised homosexuality, perhaps it’s time to criminalise such interference with art.

That’s an issue we need to debate at a national level. Until then, do go watch this beautiful film.

Rating (out of five): ****


  1. I agree with what you said about Mila Kunis, she was unfairly robbed of a nomination - I think its one of Academy's favorite pasttimes not to nominate a young star soon enough, hoping that they'd give you a few more compelling performances later in their careers. But I would equate Mila Kunis here with Marion Cotillard in NINE - an otherwise ignorable film, but what a tremendous performance by that mademoiselle! She flowed like water, her teary eyes and sad face made you want to hug her! Hope Mila chooses her next few films intelligently and gives us more of these brilliant performances.

  2. Your review is so well-written. Yet, I went in with reservations to see Black Swan as I just couldn't get excited about a movie about ballerinas and the psycho-sounding conflict between white and black swans, as if any kinds of swans are interesting at all (forget in reference to the most boring activity on earth to me - ballets!).

    Very quickly I realized the movie is not about ballet or ballerinas. It is an intense psychological thriller and a very artistic portrayal of the complex feelings inside the troubled brain of an ambitious person obsessed with perfection. It feels like a horror film in the second half (or last quarter) when, in your words, a "gut-wrenching, bone-rattling, blood-stirring" sequence of events leads up to the grand finale, and by the time she performs the black swan dance on stage one feels like one has been through a crazy emotional roller-coaster getting countless goosebumps along the way. The director succeeded in making you get inside Nina's head and experience the world as she sees it. Natalie Portman's performance was perhaps the best of any performance I have seen in a long long time..

    Anna, you were spot on about the viewer's expectation to see a change in her facial expression when she makes the transition into the black swan. But the way her entire body, her entire being metamorphosized into the black swan, and the intensity with which that change was picturized with the crescendoing music was so visceral and a rare treat of a movie experience.

    I didn't get too bothered by any of the cliches you pointed out. I found the movie to be quite flawless. One of those movies you wake up thinking about and consumed by the next day.. The morning after, I'm feeling the same way I felt after watching Inception. The Social Network and The King's Speech were great movies - perhaps more enjoyable than Inception or Black Swan in the theater - but one wasn't "consumed" by them the next morning.

    SPOILER ALERT for people who haven't watched - STOP READING NOW. One thing I didn't quite understand is the very last scene where in reality she had the piece of glass in her belly (and was perhaps dying) and said to the director "It was just perfect". What did she mean? Did she mean somehow she cultivated her dark side deliberately all along in order to build up the black swan character inside her? Or was it just a comment on the grand finale, in a way implying that she was content because of that fact despite her life being a psychological mess otherwise.


    I heard some other people say that she was so delusional/schizophrenic that perhaps the grand finale never actually happened, and the black/white swan dances on stage were just her imagination, and she just died after that scene with Lily where she imagines she killed her.. I guess the movie is open to all kinds of interpretations, kind of like Inception.

    - @singhthing

  3. Or perhaps she imagined she killed herself at the end, because that's how the story is supposed to end? Given she was a perfectionist, she couldn't be content with just jumping onto a mattress, so she actually believed she had killed herself?