Unreal Movie Review: Black Swan

Darren Aronofksy is no stranger to psychological trauma. If you’ve seen his past works like Pi and Requiem for a Dream, it’s clear the man knows his way around disturbed minds. His Oscar-snubbed effort last year, The Wrestler focused more on physical pain, but mental anguish was clearly front and center there as well.

But for as good as his films are, sometimes they can be too much. Too fractured, too jarring in the way they’re constructed, and therefore rather hard to follow. With Black Swan, he has his most cohesive effort to date. It’s a fluid picture of a broken mind, and perhaps his most fascinating feature to date, and among a stable of classics, that’s high praise.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina tapped to be the Swan Queen in a production of Swan Lake for a major company after the old Queen is rushed out. She masters the graceful, fragile White Swan with ease, but her teacher (Vincent Cassel) pushes her to perfect her Black Swan, a more sensual, unstable creature. Personifying this missing half of her persona is Lily (Mila Kunis), a wild and crazy transfer dancer from California who thankfully is not a cliché Tyler Durden-esque figment of her subconscious.

Rather, all these characters are very real, but the events of the movie slip in and out of unreality. Nina constantly experiences intense events, be they terrifying (seeing a woman stabbed in the face), erotic (an unforgettable lesbian encounter) or bizarre (plucking feathers from a wound in her back). It’s unclear which of these moments, if any, are real, and therein lies the ultimate truth to the movie once everything comes to light.

Well kind of. Even after the film ends, there are many events you still might have trouble placing into the “real” or “unreal” columns. It works to the film’s benefit to have the audience’s reality distorted as much as Nina’s, but sometimes it’s a bit much when you start questioning absolutely EVERYthing happening onscreen, as the film makes you put your guard up so that when a truly monumental event happens, you won’t be shocked as you don’t believe it’s real, even if sometimes, it is. When everything is a dream, actions lose their impact.

But that aside, it is a fascinating portrait of a fragile young mind, and it’s executed absolutely brilliantly by Natalie Portman, who I honestly did not believe had a performance like this in her. I’ve seen her in nothing previously that would imply she was capable of a role this emotional and physical, and now she’s well on her way to becoming an Oscar frontrunner.

Her Nina is a combination of fragile and frigid, and her sexual repression becomes an overriding theme of the film. Her teacher touches her provocatively, not to f*ck her, but to get her to unleash her inner sexual being, a necessity for the Black Swan part. Lily is the other half of that transformation, as she’s everything Nina is not, outgoing, flirtatious and a social butterfly rather than an outcast. Lily brings her out of her shell, but also might have a hidden agenda herself.

The symbolism and metaphor in Black Swan may be pretty obvious, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen more contrasting black and white imagery in a movie, but even if it’s a bit heavy handed, it’s very effective. At first it may seem like all Nina’s problems come from badly needing to get laid and embrace her womanhood, as her protective mother has kept her in a child-like bubble her whole life, but it eventually becomes clear her troubles are more deeply rooted than that, and the film descends into madness far beyond where you thought it was going to go.

Aronofsky has taken a subject that would bore most moviegoers, a girl preparing for a ballet, and turned it into the most psychologically complex film of the last few years. Portman’s performance here, both dramatically and in her highly physical dancing scenes is incredible, and she deserves all the accolades coming her way.

If Aronofsky can make a ballerina’s psyche look this terrifying, I have to say I can’t wait to see what the man does with the murderous, immortal killing machine, Wolverine next year.

4.5 out of 5 stars


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  1. “Rather, all these characters are very real, but the events of the movie slip in and out of unreality” I see what you did there.

    Why do so many reviews mention the fact that they didn’t think natalie portman could be this good? Have they not seen V for Vendetta or the professional? I’m not saying that those performances were better than this one, but they definitely show that she can be a great actress. So long as shes not being directed by george lucas.

  2. @Sam, I have seen NP in quite a few movies, and I think the big problem most people have with her is that she’s just so damn good at having “emotional breakdowns”. But…giving depth to her hysterical screaming and crying (which, again, she is exceptionally good at), is something she’s always had some trouble with.
    She’s a little one note, sadly. Now, I haven’t seen Black Swan yet, but I’m dying to see it, and will as soon as I can. I’m really hoping that everything I’ve heard about NP and her amazing performance is true. 🙂

  3. Really looking forward to this movie. I always liked Natalie Portman, even in Star Wars. I could use some sophistication in movies since I’ve seen Unstoppable last week. What a bad movie that is.

  4. Natalie is really great here, and Vincent too, but I think this movie is overrated. It’s good, but best movie of the year?
    I’ve seen better Aronofsky movies before.

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