Film review – Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan: Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman)
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman)

In order to dance the parts of both the White Swan and the Black Swan in a radical new interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has to ‘let go’ to embrace the dark desires within her. She’s a technically proficient enough dancer to fulfil the requirements of the White Swan role but she’s too repressed to give the Black Swan the sexual energy that such a role supposedly requires. As Bruce Lee said in Enter the Dragon, “Don’t think. Feel!” The problem is that once Nina does start to tap into her repressed emotions, she discovers that achieving artistic ambition results in self-destruction and madness.

Director Darren Aronofsky has intentionally created Black Swan to serve as a companion piece to his 2008 film The Wrestler, but the comparison is surface level at best. Both films are heavily influenced by melodrama but while The Wrestler took it’s cues from social realist cinema to present a desperate man whose self sabotaging behaviour means that he runs out of options, Black Swan is heavily indebted to more subjective and psychological cinematic trends. In fact, it closely mimics Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Repulsion in its depiction of a woman whose hysterical sexual anxieties are expressed in the physical world of the film. While both The Wrestler and Black Swan have strong martyrdom themes and feature stigmata-type traumas to the body, Black Swan goes a lot further in romanticising its lead character’s suffering in order to create a spectacle out of her mental illness. While such subject matter allows Aronofsky to display his admittedly accomplished command of film style to maximum effect, there is something insidious about the whole exercise.

Black Swan: Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) Before surrendering to her dark desires, which will liberate her to dance the part of the Black Swan, Nina is always dressed in white and surrounded by infantile objects such as the array of stuffed animals that cover her bed. Plus, she still lives with her overbearing mother, is hopelessly sexually repressed and always on the verge of tears despite getting this far in the extremely tough career of being a professional ballet dancer. When she begins to find a sense of liberation and embrace her dormant sexuality she literally begins wearing black. Perhaps the blunt symbolism throughout Black Swan is just staying true to the straightforward nature of the Swan Lake ballet and overly theatrical flourishes in cinema can work magnificently. However, in the case of Black Swan the direct appropriation of theatrical settings and costumes feels crude, making their meaning embarrassingly blatant. Powell and Pressburger managed to pull off the blend of melodrama, ballet, theatrical aesthetics and hyper-reality magnificently in The Red Shoes without it ever feeling as basic and childish as it does in Black Swan.

Simplicity is by no means a bad thing but Black Swan reduces everything to a series of reductive binary opposites, represented literally by Nina playing both the White Swan and Black Swan. Nina can remain repressed, pathetic, passionless and infantile but at least she gets to stay sane. On the other hand, she can give in to her passions to become sexual, liberated and an artistic triumph but the price she pays is violent insanity. It’s a cruel choice and the audience are supposedly meant to sympathise with Nina but too much of the film is designed to present her as a hysterical freak show.

Black Swan: Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) Black Swan is little more than exploitation cinema but its heavy pop psychology and complete lack of subversiveness make it shallow exploitation rather than transgressive. And unless you buy the film’s disturbingly romanticised vision of mental illness, it isn’t much fun either. The final climatic sequence is virtuoso filmmaking but if you haven’t got on board with the mood and ideas behind the film by then, it will not deliver the exhilarating sensory and emotive rush that it has been designed to. Perhaps those of us who ‘don’t get’ Black Swan are the poorer for it but it’s very difficult to ignore the juvenile representation of madness and use of film style that runs throughout this film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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  1. I heard an interview with Aronofsky where he admitted he’d never seen The Red Shoes! Maybe he should have – might have ended up with a better film!

  2. If Aronofsky changed his name to Vincenzo Natali and re-made it, would you like it any better? ;)

    I think I read your thoughts somewhere Thomas saying that you weren’t a fan of Aronofsky so this is probably no surprise then. I don’t agree with you but I do find it fascinating to read an alternate view of a much lauded film. And yours is certainly that! :)

  3. Nice summary on Nina’s hysteria.
    I really enjoyed the movie and found it quite powerful and dark but the fragile way Nina was portrayed did make me wonder how someone that fragile would ever make it so far in the cut throat world of professional dance.

    Mila Kunis was a breath of fresh air throughout the movie. So damn sexy too!

  4. “Explotation cinema” is too sugar-coated for the blunt depictions of sexual assault, anorexia, self-flagellation, drug abuse, and psychological and emotional terrorism that are the “lifeblood” of this aweful film. I do agree that if you can’t “get into” the spattering blood, ripping wounds, and twisted, in-your-face horror here, you are surely wondering how you managed to waste good money and valuable time on such a sad attempt at entertainment.

  5. Nina sacrificed personal development for career. Achieving her goal leaves her fragile, overextended. When she is asked to put humanity into her work, she realizes she has no access to it. Attempting to catch everything she has given up all at once is more than she can handle. Sounds like it could be a Ballet story.

  6. ***Spoiler warning***

    Thank you for this review. I can’t understand why so many people like this film. The most disturbing part to me was the simplistic psychological take on what finally inspires Nina’s breakthrough Black Swan performance. Murder? Really? Perceived murder of another or actual murder of self, it doesn’t matter because they’re both ridiculous. An artist’s inspiration is not the selfishness of the line, “It’s mine,” (add uber-dramatic, psychotic delivery while stabbing someone). It’s insulting.

  7. No urge or sense in composing some long, dreary, verbose review. Comments on this movie should be in the obituray section. The movie was intolerable, heavy, endless crap. CRAP!

  8. I was so bored by Black Swan, it was yet another cliché laden film reducing women to either meek, perfectionist and emotionally-broken virgins or passionate sexual temptresses channelling their dark powers.

    Having said that, I think it should be shown to all of those crazy stage mums out there – A Clockwork Orange style – until they realize how dangerous trying to live vicariously through their children can be…

    But I don’t like Natalie Portman in anything. Too much collar bone and doe-eyed vacuousness for me.

  9. Wow. And I thought I was somewhat on my own for not being a big fan of Black Swan!

    @David O’Connell – Despite my love for Splice (which even I’ll admit is somewhat inexplicable) I wouldn’t really consider myself a big Natali fan. However, I get your point that I do like plenty of other films that some may accuse of being perverse, transgressive, disturbing and shocking. My complaint with Black Swan isn’t really due to the content or explicitness and it’s absolutely not a moral complaint. I just found it to be too crude, too obvious and too pretentious. It’s a complaint I have with most of Aronofsky’s films and you’re right, I’m just not a fan of his work in general. With the exception of The Wrestler I’ve either disliked his previous films or found them hugely over-rated.

    I actually almost didn’t write a review of Black Swan because I mainly prefer writing about films I am excited about and because I am clearly not on board with Aronofsky’s vision, making my evaluation of his films increasingly redundant. However, I did feel compelled to express why I so significantly disliked a film that has been so widely embraced elsewhere and that’s exactly why I felt it worth expressing my position (even if the result are too long, dreary and verbose for some!)

    Anyway, thanks for your comment and I enjoyed reading your review, which is one of the more balanced of the positive reviews that I’ve read. I especially like your comments about Clint Mansell’s excellent score. I have to say that after reading your review, along with the other well-written positive reviews I’ve come across, I almost want to see Black Swan again and re-evaluate it. Almost.

  10. ***Spoiler warning***

    I am so glad other people agree that this film, no movie was so poor. Awful empty emotions, where was the dramatic tension?? The grit that this movie required. I saw the images but where were the emotions that were supposed to go with them. The movie is a farce. The ending wasn’t satisfying, yeh she transformed, yeh she kissed the guy..ok..and. I didn’t feel it, I didn’t believe it. Oscar Nominations!! Oh my God how poor the standard in Hollywood is now.

  11. Wow, really surprised at this reaction, and that so many here agree with it.

    I found it to be the best version of Aronofsky’s vision of what he wants to do with film. With the exception of The Wrestler, I feel like the majority of his films kind of pursue a similar feel (if not plot). There were real nods to his first film, Pi, throughout this (particularly the use of close cameras during the protagonists walking, sharp cuts, the use of soundtrack, etc.), and I felt like this film did what Pi did much better, and with much more forethought.

    I did read a review before seeing the film suggesting that it is very “high camp” – the review suggested this was unintentional, but I disagree – given it’s centre is Swan Lake, and ballet itself, I think that the simple symbolism, and the joy with which Aronofsky siezes upon it, is wholly intended.

    Watching the film and bemoaning its lack of realism, or trying to apply a modern view of mental health to Nina’s breakdown, is like taking Sleeping Beauty and lamenting its suggestion of kissing as a viable coma trigger. It’s a fairytale, a rabbit hole to get lost in and that gets lost in itself – a beautifully shot modern melodrama.

    And I think it does it all magnificently well.

  12. My only gripe with this review is the somewhat generous two and a half star rating. Turgid, dreary, obnoxious film that reminded me strangely of Showgirls for its vapid, bitchy depiction of grossly sexualised young women. Aronofsky’s depiction of mental illness is so childish that it would not be out of place in a 1950s exploitation film. A really, really poxy movie

  13. Thank you for so intelligently articulating everything I could feel was wrong with this idiotic film! I too am astonished at the Oscar buzz. WHAT a piece of crap. It’s nothing to do with the film’s lack of realism (which I have no problem accepting — I mean, I wasn’t expecting a ballet documentary). Rather, it was Aronofsky’s gratingly clumsy, one-dimensional reading of a potentially rich subject. Your rating is too generous, as far as I’m concerned: Black Swan gets one star from this viewer.

  14. Natalie Portman lacked the kind of alarming depth and intensity needed for the role. I could still see her as Natalie Portman and not entirely as Nina…with one facial expression throughout the entire film. It’s tiresome.

    The movie is boring and pretentious. And I am happy that I am not alone who thinks this film is astonishingly overrated.

  15. Black Swan is so talented, flawless, elegant, intense in every second of it, a beautifully, crafted dark dream…
    and yet you’ll always find selfimportant wannabe intellectuals and their followers trying to make everything complicated….people who are not alive, not sensual enough to be able to let go of their egos, their categories, their pretentious ways of analysis and just submit to this poetic nightmare and embark on a wild trip…
    It’s simple. It’s not a drama. It’s a horrormovie. A dark fairytale. A beautiful nightmare…
    And the incredible camerastyle and movements alone ( 16mm (!) handheld, by the way) should make anybody, who has just the slightest clue about filmmaking and the appreciation for good craft, become a huge fan.
    Black Swan is what cinema is really about. Creating dreamlike experiences.
    There is no message. There is no medical analysis of schizophrenia. It doesn’t fit into the harmless, pretty arthouse categories at all, it doesn’t have to….it’s so much stronger, wilder…
    If you can’t let go and dive into this dark dream, you should probably stop going to the movies.

  16. @Vincenzo – I was wondering how long it would take until somebody disagreeing with my take on this film would come here and resort to name-calling. By doing so you pretty much rule out any chance of being taken seriously. The Rev Mountain, four comments above you, made their case far more effectively and convincingly.

    The Rev Mountain made me consider re-evaluating my response. You made me think that you are far too easily impressed and probably haven’t seen very much truly dreamlike cinema.

  17. the film turned me off with its close-ups of wounds and blood and broken toe nails–yuck. it is v. derivative of repulsion, psycho, and–carrie, a movie i loved. the symbolism was way over the top–why is the mom’s room filled with weird self-portraits–or portraits of her daughter–i mean the whole room?? i agree n. portman’s expression was too much the same throughout the whole film–terror–a la the shining. the film is over-rated and will no doubt get lots of oscars.

  18. Thanks for the sane review. I thought the film was a joke – people around me in the audience apparently felt the same and were openly guffawing at its silliness. The cliches were unforgivable in a film that appears to be making a bid for being taken seriously. “That’s me seducing you, when it should be the other way around!”
    Really? Give me a break. And I’m not a prude, but the sexuality just seemed pointless and gratuitous. All in all, a misogynistic mess.

  19. I really liked the movie. I was never bored. I tried all the time to avoid the predictable, and guess what? I couldn’t expect the most of it. Aronofsky did a good job with the mixing of beauty and darkness. I give him a 4,5 for this one. Oh and by the way, I really liked the way how movie was recorded and edited.

  20. ***Spoiler warning***

    I’m glad I went movie-hopping and saw The King’s Speech after this disappointing attempt at meaningful entertainment. I hate movies that show character’s hallucinations making you think it’s real and then it’s not (sorry 127 Hours fans). I didn’t really care about Nina and when she died (did she really?), I couldn’t wait to exit the theater. I’m not a prude but the lesbian scenes make me wince – is that what she really had to do to become the Black Swan? I can’t fault Natalie – she is some actress, for sure – check out Garden State. But this movie was just not enjoyable – “awful” is as good an adjective as any I can think of.

  21. I really wonder why so many artists and filmmakers are so utterly fascinated by the mentally ill, drug addicts, or other bottom feeders of society. Where are the filmmakers who come up with a straight story, exciting developments, normal people facing challenges, and stuff people can actually relate to ? Nina Sayers is mentally ill. She cannot handle the pressure. She has no boyfriend. She lives with her mother, at the age of 28, in a room full of stuffed animals. She mutilates herself.
    There is not a single thing I can relate to here. Many scenes are just really disgusting. I like ballet, it is really beautiful, but none of its beauty is shown in this awful flick. It seems that these days artistic must equal weird, and weird must be good

  22. I was looking for a review which was doing different than just praising the movie (Sorry I can’t express myself with flowery words in English) I’m glad to find one. Actually I liked the movie but I needed to hear someone thinking different. So thank you for that.

    I disagree with some points. Like, “Reducing everything to … binary opposites” is not a brilliant idea but an appropriately matching one to the binary theme of the movie. However I’m not satisfied with the obvious symbolism. I expected smarter details. I guessed there were smarter details that I couldn’t catch (Well I went to the cinema after a few beers) but I couldn’t find any after a research on the net.

    Well, the movie had some flaws for sure, but I don’t understand people who didn’t feel anything. If you try that hard to dispell the magic of any movie, no doubt you achieve that.

    Those who call the movie crap or idiotic. Go curse a blockbuster if you want but this movie certainly deserves better respect. About Portman’s performance: Acting isn’t making hundreds of mimics throughout the movie. She’s just done it right.

  23. If anybody is interested in some further thoughts on the portrayal of women and mental illness in Black Swan then I recommend you take a look at a piece titled Misogyny and Ableism in Black Swan, which uses my review as a springboard for a more in-depth discussion.

    The writer also raises the issue of how Nina’s same-sex encounter was portrayed, which is something I neglected to discuss in my review. But briefly, my take on that scene was to see it as simply the continuation of a long tradition of mainstream cinema presenting any sexual activity that is not between a man and a women as something to be laughed at or (in this case) something that signifies a major transgression that will result in the literal or symbolic destruction of the protagonist. Therefore, Black Swan simply continues the long and clichéd approach of aligning same-sex desire with some kind of character breakdown.

    For more information on the history of negatively portraying same-sex relationship in cinema I highly recommend the book and film The Celluloid Closet and the television documentary series Indie Sex.

  24. I really enjoyed the film. I had a lot of fun with it. I found it thrilling and quite gripping.

    I loved the cast of Portman, Kunis & Hershey in particular. I can see there are some scenes that would frustrate or irritate, but I get the feeling some may have read FAR too much into this film.

    For me the transformation in Portman’s character (an actor I rarely care for – agree with bones comment) from beginning to end was just brilliant. Groundbreaking, perhaps not? Watchable, yes.

  25. I wasn’t blown away by this movie, but I did like it. For me, it was well acted, scary and weird. I guess you could classify it a horror/thriller. It might make you cringe in some scenes. If you’re squeamish, this might not be the best film for you.

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