Review: Black Swan

I have to admit I was reticent to see Black Swan because I have had bad experiences with director Darren Aronofsky, but on the other hand I have been in love with Natalie Portman as an actress since I first saw her in The Professional (one of my all-time favorites) when she was just 12 years old. Aronofsky can be brutal to watch — just ask anyone who has seen the rape scene in Requiem For a Dream. And frankly I didn’t care for The Wrestler so much either, despite the great performances by Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei. Why is everything so dark with you Darren?

Well, Black Swan is certainly dark. But I really enjoyed it. The short version of the plot goes like this: ballerina Nina Sayers is obsessed with perfection and at home lives with an overbearing mother who is a failed dancer herself. Nina finally gets her shot at the lead role in Swan Lake, but her director doesn’t think she can play the dark and seductive black swan because it does not fit her personality. At the same time she feels pressure from a newcomer to the troop, played seductively by Mila Kunis, who clearly can play the black swan. All of the pressure builds and Nina, who likely suffers from schizophrenia, starts imagining dark events which ultimately lead her to insanity and a “perfect” performance of the black swan. There…got it?

Spoiler Alert: I’m going to analyze the film and can’t do so without discussing the sordid details so if you have not seen the film you might want to stop reading here. Black Swan is a story of how striving for perfection can lead to self-destruction. Sure, Nina had external pressures, but undoubtedly the internal pressures drove her over the edge to insanity. She was prone to self-destruction earlier in her career, which is why her mother began to worry when she started scratching herself. But as the pressure mounted she began to have bad dreams and that led to hallucinations. These got worse as opening night drew closer, and ultimately she wanted perfection so badly she caused herself physical pain in order to mimic the suicide at the end of the ballet.

A lot of discussion about this film centered around whether or not Mila Kunis’ character was real — I think she was. But I definitely think Nina imagined many of the conversations and activities that took place with Lily. Did they have sex? I doubt it (although it was fun to watch!) It really doesn’t matter how much of what Nina did or did not experience was real because regardless she was over the brink. There has also been a lot of discussion about the final scene of the film…did she die or not? Again, it doesn’t matter. To Nina she reached “perfection” in her performance and that’s probably why Aronofsky left us unsure of the outcome.

This film made me think, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It was hard to watch this young woman self-destruct, and Aronofsky’s portrayal of this insanity was compelling. As Nina danced the final scene in the ballet did she turn into a swan? No, but she felt like she did and Aronofsky used his camera to enable us to see the transformation. The film had moments of surrealism and that’s what made us believe Nina was going insane.

So, I really liked Black Swan. Portman definitely deserved her Oscar and it will likely be the first of many to come. If you only know Portman from the Star Wars films you are really missing out. Go back and watch The Professional to see how she got started. I also loved her in Beautiful Girls, Everyone Says I Love You, Closer and Garden State. But I still don’t recommend any other Aronofsky films!

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