Black Swan

Black Swan (DVD Cover)

Cast: Nina Sayers/The Swan Queen (Natalie Portman), Lily/The Black Swan (Mila Kunis), Thomas Leroy/The Gentleman (Vincent Cassel), Erica Sayers/The Queen (Barbara Hershey), Beth Macintyre/The Dying Queen (Winona Ryder), David/The Prince (Benjamin Millepied)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Theatrical release: 12/17/2010
DVD Date: 03/29/2011

Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes

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Black Swan

Review: Black Swan is marketed as a suspense thriller or a psychological thriller, but it actually doesn't begin to fit either of these descriptions until well into the final act -- and even then, doesn't really achieve any significant measure of suspense at all as the (presumably intended surprise) ending is foreshadowed from almost the beginning of the film.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer, who is chosen to replace Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) as the lead for her company in the new season, Beth having "retired". Their opening ballet is Swan Lake, and though the director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), has chosen Nina to perform the roles of both the White Swan and the Black Swan, he really believes she's only capable of doing the former. Nina's rival, Lily (Mila Kunis), is more suitable for the Black Swan and serves as her understudy for both parts. Thomas continues to push Nina to explore her darker side, to become (as it were) the character of the Black Swan. Nina has been driven to pursue perfection in her craft by her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) -- herself a former ballet dancer, though not of the same caliber as Nina -- and simply doesn't understand how to be both perfect and "dark". This mental anguish causes her to suspect everyone around her of trying to destroy her but she's determined to prove everyone wrong and that she can be brilliant as both the White Swan and the Black Swan ... at any cost.

Natalie Portman is in practically every scene of Black Swan, and it is for this role that she won an Academy Award for Best Actress. I won't try to second-guess whether she deserved it or not -- I haven't seen most of the other films starring her competition -- but it's really not a strong performance ... at least for much of the film. I'll be the first to admit, however, that her transformation from White Swan to Black Swan during the premiere of Swan Lake, which takes place at the end of the film, is absolutely remarkable ... and probably worth a rental viewing of the film just for this scene. And while this transformation is, in large part, the whole point of the film, the path it takes to get here is just as unremarkable.

Just to be clear, this is not a "ballet film" per se, as there is far too little ballet on display to appeal to fans of the art. On the other hand, those who find ballet tedious will likely fast-forward through the long stretches of practice sessions shown, and watch those scenes that develop the character of Nina and set the stage for her transformation.

Toward that end, Nina's increasingly paranoid reaction to events leading up to the ballet's premiere are punctuated by flashes of shocking images, images that are supposed to cause viewers to wonder if they're real or simply in Nina's mind. But there is almost always a subsequent scene shortly thereafter to contradict that supposition, which of course is kind of an odd way to generate and maintain a suspenseful environment. And that is the real problem with Black Swan: it is simply not the thriller it wants to be.

Stylistically, there are a couple of annoying aspects that mar the viewer's experience. In nearly every scene, there is a reflective surface (no subtlety here as to what that means), and the camera angle is such that you see a reflection of what's going on. There are, for example, a lot of over-Nina's-shoulder shots. And apparently the filmmakers have never heard of a steadicam because many of the scenes are filmed with a not very steady handheld camera, giving the production a surprisingly amateurish look.

In the end, Black Swan is one of those films that seems to invite would-be filmmakers to imagine what they would do differently ... and there's a lot to choose from. The meandering screenplay could be more tightly plotted, the direction could be more focused and less "artful", the production could be less drab -- I know, the primary color scheme is intentionally black, gray, and white, but still a little color here and there could have made an impact -- and so on.

Rating

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Page Author: Lance Wright
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