Black Swan.

Black Swan is an extremely well-acted psychological thriller about a tightly-wound ballet dancer who may or may not be losing her mind as a result of the stress of her job (and, perhaps, malnutrition from her bulimia). It’s also thinly plotted and hard to watch because of (I assume deliberately) shaky cinematography and dim lighting.

A New York ballet company is putting on a production of Swan Lake just as its longtime star, now 35, is being forced out of her role due to age. Nina, a shy but very talented technical ballerina, wins the central part playing both the White and Black Swans in the show, but finds herself beset by doubts, hounded by impossible visions, and threatened by a new dancer just in from San Francisco who may or may not be trying to steal her role.

The movie rests heavily on the depth of its four main characters and the performances given by those actors. Natalie Portman won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her central role as Nina, a fragile, childlike ballerina who is perfect for the White Swan role but is so obsessed with perfection that she can’t provide the passionate, reckless dancing required for a convincing seductress Black Swan. Portman, like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, has to be on pointe throughout the film to pull it off, as her character is in every scene and she must be credible as an adult whose emotional and physical growth has been stunted. I was put off by her wispy voicing of almost every line through the first hour and a half, although it did help cement her nervous, timid personality.

Mila Kunis probably earned more notoriety for her sex scene with Portman than she did for her work in the rest of the film, but whose work as a free-spirited, gregarious colleague who must create suspicion in the viewer’s mind about her ultimate motives was as essential to the film’s credibility as Portman’s work. Vincent Cassel, whom I’d only seen before in Eastern Promises, is outstanding as Thomas, the creepy-but-not-always-creepy director of the ballet company, a man who is probably abusing his position and yet gives no doubt that he is committed to coaxing a command performance from his star. Barbara Hershey, playing Nina’s mother, alternates between a vindictive Mommie Dearest and a loving if overprotective mother who is desperate to prevent ballet from ruining her daughter’s life while living vicariously through her daughter’s success.

But how much of what we see is real, and how much is filtered through the distorted lenses of Nina’s hallucinations? Much of what we see in the film is clearly faulty wiring in her head, including a scene where she peels a thick layer of skin off her finger, or another where her legs spontaneously break in absurd directions. But those obvious illusions could be tipping us off that much of what seems real isn’t, something backed up by frequent decisions to use a vantage point directly behind Nina’s head. Is her mother actually the witch we see in half of her scenes, or is that Nina’s perception of her? How much of Lily’s two-faced personality is, again, Nina’s jealousy manifesting itself in imagined or distorted conversations that are shown to us through her mind? I don’t think there’s a correct answer on this one, but after thinking about the movie for the last 36 hours, I’m inclined to believe that she is the film’s unreliable narrator, and virtually none of what we see before the final scene can be taken at face value.

The story itself contains enough small twists and turns to maintain a moderate level of tension, even though it should be clear from the start where we must finish, since Thomas explains the plot of Swan Lake and the script doesn’t hide the parallels between the film and the ballet within it. But the decision to shoot so many scenes from behind Portman on some kind of handheld camera made for very rough, shaky cinematography – again, possibly a conscious decision to reflect the turmoil inside of Nina’s head, but hell to watch at long stretches. That’s exacerbated by the fact that the lighting in just about every scene in the film is poor and everything is dank and gray, good for keeping the mood bleak but, again, tough to watch for a hundred minutes.

My wife danced for about seven years as a child at a local ballet school, so I defer to her on questions about the dancing in the film. Her gut impression was that we were seeing much more of Portman’s dancing double, Sarah Lane, than we were of Portman, saying the key was to watch the character’s feet – a non-professional dancer couldn’t point her toes or arch her foot half as well as someone who’s been dancing for a decade, because of muscle and bone development. She assumed that any time Nina’s feet were out of the shot or her face wasn’t visible – we had a lot of scenes where her face was blocked by another character or only visible in a blurry reflection in a mirror – that it was her double.

To answer two questions I’m anticipating from the regular readers among you:

* I’m torn on Best Actress between Portman and Lawrence. Both roles were difficult. Both women executed them about as well as I could expect. I think Lawrence’s was more difficult, but feel like I’m unqualified to make that judgment when it’s such a close call; it seems to me like playing a child who acts convincingly like an adult would be harder than playing an adult who acts convincingly like a child. I know Lawrence was more critical to Winter’s Bone than Portman was to Black Swan, but is that not analogous to judging an MVP candidate by the caliber of his teammates? I still lean Lawrence, but without confidence that she’s the right call over Portman.

* Best Picture: I’m through seven, and this would be at the bottom of the seven for me. Good movie, but not on par with the previous six I’ve seen. I think The Kids Are All Right is on its way to us from Netflix.


  1. I personally think that Lawrence should have won, but as Portman is well-liked in Hollywood, politics got in the way. Plus, Lawrence was so young that the “oh, she’ll get one in the future” argument was used by voters.

    I’m curious to see what you think about the Kids Are All Right. I thought it was by far the worst film nominated last year, and was a glorified TV movie.

  2. Have you reviewed Inception yet? Curious about your take on it.

  3. Is the goal to have seen all the 2010 Oscar nominees by the time the 2011 noms are announced?

  4. I really thought a lot of Black Swan. I’m such a sucker for Aronofsky’s films, though, so I realize it is a unique taste. I thought it was an elegant translation of the Swan Lake into a psychological character study, which was what was needed to make the ballet watchable as a film. The degree of difficulty in even putting on the film I think leaves it in rare company.

    As for the Director, I think he is doomed to be on the outside looking in from the academy. His filmmaking is outstanding (including some of that shaky cam use), but the stories he tells appeal to a narrower audience than is necessary to be a real player at the awards.

  5. I’m glad that you recognized at least that Portman did a good job. I get the impression that people get so annoyed about anyone getting credit around award season that it quickly swings from “Portman is great in Black Swan” to “Portman is overrated in Black Swan” to “Portman is awful and anyone who liked her in Black Swan is an idiot”. To my view she was great in this movie, Jennifer Lawrence was also great in Winter’s Bone. As to who’s better I think it more comes down to a matter of preference than any kind of objective standard.

  6. It’s been a few months since I’ve seen Black Swan, but I don’t recall having any issues with the cinematography or lighting. I just recall being riveted by the storytelling (even if the ending was obvious, they did a great job of getting there) and Portman’s performance. And the movie’s depiction of the actual performance of Swan Lake was, to me, amazing.

    After seeing the movie, I didn’t think it was possible that any of the other actresses could have been better than Portman (Benning’s performance is the only other one I’ve seen, and I’m not even sure she was the best actress in her own movie), but since you think it’s such a close call between Portman and Lawrence, I’m eager to see Winter’s Bone now.

    I’ve seen eight of the Best Picture nominees (all but Winter’s Bone and Toy Story 3), and Black Swan was my favorite, followed by The Fighter (though I’m a sucker for that type of movie). True Grit was my least favorite; it was a good movie, but it didn’t do much for me.

    I liked The Kids Are All Right well enough (though it wasn’t nearly as substantive as I’m sure its creators think), but based on your reviews of other movies, I don’t think you’ll enjoy it.

  7. Did you ever get the feeling that her mother was molesting her? This has been a big topic of debate. I feel that if Aronofsky wanted the audience to think she was molesting Nina, he would have made it clear.

  8. What I would have loved to seen was Black Swan re-imagined in the world of Moneyball. We could follow a young baseball GM thrust into action at the trading deadline who starts losing his grip on sanity. He’d hallucinate things like the Angels seeking high-OBP players or the Rays taking on payroll, and end up making a really bad trade.

  9. Did you pick up on the molestation/incest undertones? I didn’t catch them at first, but there are very clear hints that it’s part of the story.

  10. So by my count, you’ve got The Kids are All Right, 127 Hours, and The Fighter left to see? I saw all 10, and personally, I could hardly get through Winter’s Bone. I can’t see what the appeal is, but to each his own. My favorites were The Social Network, and The Fighter, but I’m curious to see what you think of Franco’s performance in 127 Hours because I thought it was pretty amazing.

  11. Aronofsky said Black Swan was a kind of companion piece to The Wrestler, depicting cultural expectations (for femininity and masculinity respectively) and aging, leaving the spotlight. In this way I thought it was good in a “shine the mirror on the audience” kind of way.

    I think the David Lynch style surrealism should have been toned down a bit and I could have done without the lesbian fantasy dream sequence which seemed out of place and ended up becoming in large part what the film was known for (due partially to it’s prominence in film marketing and promotion).

    It was a decent film and Portman certainly did a great job, but ultimately I preferred The Wrestler for an Aronofsky film and True Grit, Inception, The Fighter and Toy Story 3 (like it ever had a chance) for films from the past year.

  12. Question: Are we certain she was bulimic? Certainly she was under-nourished (that initial breakfast was depressing), but as I recall, she vomited twice. Neither episode occurred in close proximity to her eating (again as I recall, one upheaval occurred a full dance practice after we last saw her eating) and both vomiting bouts followed stressful events/encounters. In neither instnace did she appear to bring about her vomiting. Did I miss something, or am I the simpleton that needs things to be made obvious for me?

  13. I know you’ve liked various anime films, so I’ll make the obligatory Perfect Blue recommendation. It’s generally a less ambiguous film than Black Swan (at least in retrospect), but still features a lot of blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

    I hadn’t quite thought of Portman’s character cast specifically as the unreliable narrator before, but I like it. Good stuff.

  14. I recommend checking out La Haine. From what I’ve seen, Vincent Cassel has never been better than in his role as Vinz in that film.

  15. Remember the scene where Nina goes into the bathroom and finds “WHORE” scribbled across the mirror?

    Yeah, that pretty much says it all.

  16. Just remembering this review, which I think nailed it:

    For once I actually watched a major feature film with popular and critical acclaim. I will hesitate to do so again anytime soon.

  17. With your wife being a former dancer, you are clearly too close to the subject material and your whole opinion on this film is meaningless.

  18. Keith,
    I can assure you that in most years the best films of the year aren’t found anywhere on Oscar’s shortlist — and that includes their foreign film selections also.

  19. Just watched it last night. Still digesting it. At all points, I assume there was a lack of reliability to what we were seeing. Exactly what was real and what was imagined is probably not meant to be known. I thought Portman was fantastic and pretty much all the major actors did a good job, though I don’t know how much of a stretch Kunis’s role was for her, since I feel like I’ve seen her play that a few times before (I love the girl and she does that act well, but just not sure it was a stretch). I noticed the shaky cam right away, something I’m not sure really has a purpose ever, but definitely not when you’re watching an extended shot of someone tying their shoes.

    Maybe I missed it but, is she dead at the end? I know it did the fade to white, but I also don’t see that her injury was necessarily life threatening.

    As for the commentary on the dance world, I’m left wondering whether she went crazy because of the dance or whether she went for the dance because she was crazy. Is there something about the professional dance world that draws people of a certain ilk (or, more accurately, does Aranofsky believe there is)? Or, in viewing it in conjunction with the “The Wrestler” is there a toll that seeking unattainable ideals has on a person? Is it unavoidable?

  20. Surprised you haven’t seen Cassel more. He is one of the biggest French stars and over the past several years has been in a lot of American movies. Echo the recommendation on La Heine. Fantastic in the two Mesrine films. Crimson Rivers is also good.

  21. With regards to the sanity of Nina, it has nothing to do with stress, faulty wiring, or whatever. In psychoanalysis, this phenomenon is called “the alienating loss of the self.” The classic example of this is Narcissus. He becomes so infatuated with his own reflection that he gives himself to the “other.” This, of course, leads to Narcissus plunging himself into the water only to drown. It is important to note that the moment of death is also the moment of ecstasy (uniting with the object of desire).

    Black Swan focuses on the fixation and “giving” of Nina to the “other” (the role of the black swan). Nina is constructed as the penultimate white (virginal) swan. Nina is seeming a little girl trapped in the body of a young adult. Just recall the color scheme of her room (pink, lots of frills, etc.), her birthday cake (looks like something for a child), or her confession to the director that she has never had a boyfriend. The youthful nature of Nina underscores her innocence. Hell, even her conception is watered down. There is no father figure in the film, and the only reference to him is when the mom acknowledges the fact she quit dancing to have a daughter. However, no words are uttered about the father. It is as if Nina’s mother magically had a baby. Nina is so pure that not even the act of sex could sully her virginal nature. Nina is the embodiment of purity; no sex, no drugs, just ballet.

    Wanting to win the role of the black swan, Nina is desperate to do what it takes. The director said on many occasions that Nina “must become the black swan.” Any of the hallucinations represent Nina’s “giving herself to the other.” She grows feathers, loses skin, her legs bend (break?) at the knee in the same manner as a bird. Not only does Nina appear to be less human and more bird-like, but her actions eschew her pure nature as the white swan. It starts innocently by going to a bar to meet with the opposite sex, but I believe she took drugs, and then had a graphic sexual fantasy. The story culminates with opening night of the ballet. As Nina is spinning on stage, she transforms into (i.e. gives herself totally to) the black swan. This would be akin to Narcissus diving headfirst into the water. The moment of ecstasy (thus death) is when the director calls Nina “my little princess,” the term of endearment reserved for the former black swan.

    As a previous commenter mentioned, La haine is a great film.

  22. Keith,

    If you haven’t seen it I would highly recommend the classic Powell/Pressburger film “The Red Shoes” starring professional ballet star Moira Shearer.

  23. Jkgaucho, beat me to it, but I would defintely recommend “The Red Shoes.” If you thought the cinematography for “Black Swan” was “shaky” then you’ll really be amazed by “The Red Shoes.” Awesome film.

  24. Just wanted to throw in another recommendation for “La Haine”. Great film about the growing up in the ghettos that ring Paris.


  1. […] with such stark subject matter. And it was far better than two of the Best Picture nominees I saw, Black Swan and The Kids Are All Right, and is probably ahead of The Fighter for me as […]