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January 3, 2011

Movie Review: Black Swan (2010)

By Lacey Paige

Pursuing ballet is something that every little girl and her mother fantasize about at some point or another. For the seemingly luckiest of little girls, that fantasy becomes a reality upon years of what turns out to be back-breaking, toe-splitting, body-depraving hours of self-discipline, excruciatingly hard work, and essentially—the insatiable craving for perfection. I’m incredibly grateful for the fact that I never had much of a desire to be one of those self-sacrificing perfectionists…or to learn how to dance. It took years but my mom eventually came to accept the eccentric, imaginative horror-movie freak of a woman that I’ve become. After seeing what I’d call one of my most anticipated films of the year, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, I’m more grateful for these things now that I ever have been.

Buy Black Swan on DVD

Like beauty, horror is truly in the eye of the beholder and director Aronofsky has proven himself to be a master of the unconventional genre film with his earlier work, particularly in Requiem for a Dream and his debut film, Pi. His fifth and arguably one of his best films yet, Black Swan is a phenomenal nightmare vision with jaw-dropping impact, veiled by lace and the sickeningly sweet scent of perfume.

The blackened heart that lies within the premise of the story creates a stunningly surreal contrast against the lead character—the human embodiment of a perfect white swan, Nina Sayers. Natalie Portman plays the character of Nina with voluptuous vigor. A determined dancer throughout her whole life, forced to withstand searing amounts of pressure from both herself as well as her overbearing mother, she is faced with the inevitable need to overcome passiveness and self-doubt and find within herself her very own black swan in order to meet the strict expectations of Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), director of the famous Swan Lake ballet. After a mild and blatantly forced sexual encounter with Leroy, Nina finds out that she is given the part of the white swan, replacing the former star of the show, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), who’s true feelings regarding her “retirement” are shown within seconds of the introduction of her character in a violent and rather powerful eruption of emotion.

Mila Kunis stars as sultry bad girl ballerina, Lily—Nina’s back-up dancer and counterpart as the black swan. Lily is the stereotypical cinematic embodiment of the “movie bad girl”, tattooed and sensually smoking cigarettes with a razor-sharp tongue and the slick wit of a girl who takes what she wants with a sense of power that every woman wishes she possessed. Everything that Nina is told she needs in order for her to succeed as the swan queen, Lily already has—which makes for a fragile and manipulation-malleable relationship.

Just as director Leroy advices her to do in her part as the swan queen, Nina slowly starts to lose herself. The majority of the running time is focused on Nina’s relentless battle with her inner insecurity demons, which are consequently fed when she allows herself to develop a pseudo friendship with her counterpart and lose grip on the level of self-discipline that got her where she is in the first place.

The film is sprinkled with a few touchy borderline taboos—exploring self-sexuality (masturbation) and homosexuality (girl-on-girl foreplay). These few scenes alone are fierce enough to hold an overall indestructible film together and will likely leave you stunned and horrified by the level of raw human emotion and sheer beauty portrayed consistently throughout. Aronofsky feeds into a woman’s deepest desires, fears, and fantasies, creating common ground for all women to relate to on a metaphorical level.

Films like this—although centered on the hardships of professional dancers specifically—evoke a plentiful amount of thought about women’s (in general) mental and emotional states and how things like sexuality, menopause, postpartum depression, and the timeless struggles that women have faced to gain a sense of independence have significantly effected the mental and emotional deterioration of an increasing percentage of women in modern societies (which according to statistics is, in fact, true).

The film was shot on a budget of $13, 000, 000 with an all star cast that will likely be remembered as the best performances on the big screen for many of the actors involved. Lead special effects technician Roland Blancaflor—with the help of a hefty crew of visual effects artists—created some of the most simple, subtle FX that are conversely just downright hard to swallow. The stuff that you would typically find in a conventional horror film is absent in Black Swan… instead Blancaflor took a more visceral and universally relative approach to his work, providing audiences with just a few blood spills. Decapitations and severed limbs don’t exist in Aronofsky’s world. Here you will find the kind of physical ailments that pretty well anyone has experienced at some point in their lives—cracked nails, nasty rashes, and others that are the visual equivalent of fingernails across a chalkboard.

Black Swan is in many ways very similar to his previous film, The Wrestler, which features Mickey Rourke in a comparable role—only fueled by testosterone and the inner struggles that men in professional sports face throughout the duration of their career. If there is one thing that can be said about Aronofsky as a filmmaker, he knows how to portray human mind and human emotion with undeniable precision.

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