Second Opinion – Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan, 2010.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder.


A ballet dancer finds herself competing with a rival for the lead in a production of Swan Lake and must embrace her dark side in order to win the role, but at what cost?

One of the most eagerly anticipated and talked about films of 2011 is Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Coming from a director whose previous outings have been critically acclaimed gripping tales of human emotion, Black Swan has had the high expectations attached to it enhanced this week by it’s 12 BAFTA nominations. Does it live up to the hype?

The film follows Nina (Natalie Portman), a New York ballerina who dreams of being the Swan Queen in her company’s new imagining of Swan Lake. When given her chance in the new season Nina, being methodical, timid and searching for perfection through concentration, is criticised by her director, Thomas Leroy, (Vincent Cassel) as not feeling the role and letting go. Her portrayal of the white swan is perfect, but her black swan lacks passion, seduction and danger.

Struggling to understand how she is to let go in order to achieve perfection in the opposite sides of the role she becomes obsessed with the dance and her role, as well as Leroy’s appreciation of the new ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis). Lily is everything Nina is not. She’s free, loose and relaxed compared to Nina’s stuffy and up tight character and both of their personalities are reflected in their dancing.

Stifled by her Mother’s (Barbara Hershey) obsession for her daughter to achieve the success she never had Nina pushes herself more and more and thus creeping closer to the edge. As Nina searches to escape from her Mother by getting out for an evening of freedom with Lily she drinks, pops a hallucinogenic little pill and dances the night away in an underground club with several men. After experiencing life on the other side of the tracks Nina begins to dance with freedom to the appreciation of Leroy.

However, as Nina begins to get more aligned with the black swan within herself and her obsession with her role deepens, her sanity comes into question with some very dark and twisted moments. Fearing that Lily will steal her role, Nina has dark hallucinations of stopping Lily at all costs. Then finally on opening night Nina dances the black swan to perfection with her fellow ballerinas, Leroy and the audience in awe of her performance, but at what cost to her sanity?

Black Swan is a truly intense, dark and chilling tale of obsession and the destruction that accompanies it. Portman is chilling as Nina as she changes from a timid and gentle white swan to the dark, dangerous and seductive black swan in both the ballet and her own life.

Nina’s home life is just as dark with her room resembling that of a child and her relationship with her Mother being encapsulated in any number of moments of molly-coddling with undertones of resentment. Nina is treated like a small child as her Mother undresses her, tucks her in and covers her hands in socks held on by elastic bands in order to stop her scratching in her sleep. The Mother and daughter pair live ballet to the point of their living room consisting of just a piano and large mirrors in which Nina can dance and their obsession drives them apart.

In ballet Aronofsky takes a world that is rife with obsession as dancers push their physical limits to the point of illness in return for success. The underlying themes and moral behind Black Swan could be easily be adapted to any number of professions in which obsession pushes the human limits of those seeking success, but none as a beautiful, or possibly as dark, as ballet.

Watching a young woman pushing herself in order to make her dream a reality as her thoughts, actions and life become more and more questionable was thrilling and so artistic. The beauty of Nina’s dancing juxtaposed with the anxiety, fear and jealousy in her facial expressions is as beautiful as it is tragic. It is easy to see why Black Swan has received so much hype and as always Aronofsky has proven himself to be not only a truly gripping storyteller with such depth and so many levels to his films, but the creator of a moving piece of art.

Aronofsky takes you on a journey that is not only emotionally draining for Nina, but also for the audience. Black Swan is a visceral tale with so many levels of hope, fear, jealousy, beauty and darkness that it emotes all of these feelings to point of audience exhaustion. Brilliantly. I could happily watch Black Swan again this very minute but for the emotional roller coaster inflicted upon me, leaving a temporary emotional fragility. Filmmaking at it’s highest level.

D.J. Haza

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Read our Black Swan review from the London Film Festival here.

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