Review: Black Swan


Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by:Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied
Released: January 20, 2011
Grade: B+

In the more than 20 years that I’ve been competing in golf tournaments, there’s one goal that I’m yet to achieve – to play a bogey-free round.  In my eyes, it’s the equivalent of perfection.  It’s a round of golf without a single mistake – where every hole is completed in par or better.  I’ve been close so many times and it’s been the cause of much angst and heartbreak.

This pursuit of perfection is at the heart of Darren Aronofsky’s (The Wrestler, Requiem For A Dream) new film, Black Swan.  For many years, Nina (Portman) has dedicated herself to being a renowned ballet dancer.  I must strong emphasise the word “dedicated”.  Nina has given up everything to follow this career path.  She has no friends, she rarely socialises and she’s never had a meaningful relationship.  She simply practices for hours every day, putting her lightweight body through an incredible level of stress.

Her hard work has paid off.  The studio’s artistic director, Thomas (Cassel), has cast Nina in the lead role of his new production.  She will play the Swan Queen in a fresh adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  For those that don’t know the tale, it’s about a beautiful woman who is turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer.  She can only be returned to human form if a man pledges his love for her.  A handsome prince looks set to break the spell but he too is deceived by the sorcerer.  Realising that there’s only one way that they can be together, the prince and the swan make the ultimate sacrifice.

There are two parts to the role of the Swan Queen and Thomas knows that Nina would be perfect as the White Swan.  She’s beautiful, she’s virtuous and she’s precise.  His concerns are with the second half of the play and whether Nina can transform into the darker, seductive Black Swan.  It requires passion, flamboyance, spontaneity.  These not so perfect qualities can’t be learned from a textbook.  They come though life experience, an area lacking in Nina’s repertoire.

The fact that Nina can’t perfect the role won’t stop her from trying.  She realises that she must discover the “Black Swan” within.  She starts rebelling against her overbearing mother (Hershey).  She gives in to Thomas’s aggressive flirtations.  She goes out drinking with a rival dancer (Kunis) who knows how to have a good time.

This film is about a ballet dancer but it could just as easily be about any artist in pursuit of a dream.  Sometimes, we must lose ourselves before we can discover who we really are.  Darren Aronofsky illustrates this psychological quandary by blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.  Which of the scenes in this movie are real?  Which are an hallucination?  You’ll be trying to answer these questions long after you’ve left the cinema.  I don’t think multiple viewings will help either.

Be warned – Black Swan is a brutal film-going experience.  Aronofsky wants to put the audience through the wringer and give them something to remember.  He weaves moments of unexpected horror into the hazy storyline.  Some parts will leave you squirming in your seat.  Others will leave you with an increased heart rate.

Natalie Portman has been lauded for her performance as Nina and with good reason.  Just like her character, you can see that she’s thrown everything into the role.  She may be rewarded with a first Academy Award in a few weeks time.  I was equally impressed with Vincent Cassel at Thomas.  He’s such an intriguing guy – is he genuine or is he manipulating Nina for his own benefit?  On the flipside, I didn’t think too much of Mila Kunis as Nina’s rival.  I’m surprised by the numerous award nominations she’s already received this season.

I’m a long-time admirer of Darren Aronofsky but I’m not raving about Black Swan like many other critics.  The parallels between Nina’s story and the Swan Lake story seem almost too obvious.  I got the message early on and there weren’t any great revelations in the film’s finale.  I also had trouble believing in Nina’s “transformation”.  It felt rushed and the ending (which I also have concerns about) sneaks up too quickly.

So will I ever achieve my elusive bogey-free round?  Am I foolish to be aiming for perfection in an imperfect world?  Or will the pursuit of this almost unobtainable goal drive me to improve?  It’s a fine line and Black Swan left me thinking.