The black and white of Black Swan: a review

A while back, I heard that Natalie Portman was training with NYC Ballet for a new movie.  They had me at “Portman” and then at “Ballet.” Then I heard that it was a Darren Aronofsky film.  Sold.  I was absolutely sold right there and my expectations were rising. Winona Ryder, Based on Swan Lake… With every new detail I heard, the more I anticipated this movie’s release and the less likely that it would be able to live up to my expectations.  But the potential for greatness… oh, the potential.

My expectations were, in most ways, met.  Still in limited release, I had the pleasure of viewing Black Swan on Tuesday night.  Leaving the theater, I was captivated, excited and contemplative about what I had just seen.  I found myself thinking about the contrast between the two extremes that combine to form an intriguing portrait of a confused and eager-to-please ballerina. She had all of the ambition and self-destructiveness to propel her to the top of fame or drag her down to the depths of her own mental landscape.  The juxtaposition between black and white, good and evil, stiff precision and unbridled free-spiritedness were all stretched between torment and beauty–two extremes, melting into some shared form of psyche.

Shadowing the story of the classic fairytale Swan Lake, the movie turns a darker corner; following not only the performance but delving into the personal lives of its characters as they are engulfed by the poignancy of the story itself.  Natalie Portman plays Nina, a dancer who is a perfectionist vying for the part of Swan Queen.  She exhibits all of the qualities for the “White Swan” but struggles to also display those of the “Black Swan” vital in completing the Queen’s persona.  Nina is both terrified of, and enamored with, Mila Kunis’ Lily, a free spirit and Black Swan in every sense of the phrase.  To be truly perfect, Nina needs to become imperfect.  In doing so, she spirals into the unknown, blurring her personal sense of reality in the process.

Set to a lush set of mostly black and white detail, the costumes designed by Rodarte oozed with richness, the makeup characterized concepts without words and the music, based on Tchaikovsky’s infamous Swan Lake, was the perfect backdrop to the graceful White Swan and the falling Black Swan.

I have to say, in all honesty, that the movie was not exactly what I expected from the trailers and early reviews, but it in no way disappointed.  I was under the impression that Nina’s home life with her ex-ballerina mother was more oppressive than overbearing and while the movie included some disturbing and violent ideas, I anticipated more of them.  That being said, I’m glad that I didn’t get what I expected.

Though it was psychologically perverse, the movie was more grounded in reality and thought-process—which, knowing Aronofsky’s work, is what I hoped for rather than the violent “thriller” vibe I got from trailers.  This base of reality made the movie eerily more affecting, relatable and significant.  Aronofsky exquisitely portrays Nina’s slowly twisting self-perception and gives a genuine interpretation of the crumbling of a fragile perfectionist.

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  1. 8 years ago

    Thank you for the thought-provoking review. I love this comment: “To be truly perfect, Nina needs to become imperfect. In doing so, she spirals into the unknown, blurring her personal sense of reality in the process.” You are absolutely right. She tried to break down the barriers of what she was missing out on in life, and it consumed her in the process. I agree that this a beautiful movie, but psychologically haunting. I hope it wins a TON of awards.

  2. 8 years ago

    Thanks for your thoughts, Holly! (“She tried to break down the barriers of what she was missing out on in life, and it consumed her in the process.” –So true)

    I definitely recommend that you follow through with the Aronofsky marathon you mentioned in your own article! As many of his films, I agree that it’s best not to know much before seeing them. I hope it wins lots of awards, too!

  3. 8 years ago

    I agree with you – the movie was powerful and disturbing. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen throughout the entire film. The dance sequences were exciting, even for those who don’t have a familiarity with ballet, and Natalie Portman was a revelation as a dancer who was fragile in every way, and who consistently pushed herself to the brink of insanity and eventually over the edge. And who would have thought that Mila Kunis would sustain such gravitas in dramatic work! Despite watching her for so many years doing tv comedy (That ’70s Show/Family Guy), I still lost myself in her performance as Lily. Aronofsky as usual, has a superb way of getting inside the head of his main character/characters as well as the viewer.

  4. 8 years ago

    @Raffy—Thanks for your comment–I agree! Aronofsky has such a unique way of creating an entirely new perspective about something you thought you already knew—and then blow your mind with how different it could really be. I’m curious what his take on a more mainstream Hollywood movie will be like when he does Woolverine next.

    I was also surprised by Mula Kunis’ breakthrough performance. Despite no being up for an Oscar, the movie has certainly transformed her career since its release. She’s been viewed as a fashion icon and all eyes are on what she’ll be doing next—especially now that she’s single after her break up with longtime boyfriend Macaulay Culkin!

    So I’m curious, Holly and Raffy (and everyone else): Do you think Black Swan should have won the Oscar for Best Picture? Did you see The King’s Speech? If so, I haven’t seen it yet– how do you think it compares?

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