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Black Swan (2010)

December 10, 2010

9/10 Downward Spirals

The most jaw-dropping and horrific thing that’s ever had to do with ballet. Billy Elliott‘s got nothing on this.

Black Swan is about a promising ballerina who tries out for the lead role in an upcoming production of Swan Lake, a role that requires her to play both good and evil sides of the story. When it comes to the good, she’s got it down pat, but when it comes to the evil, she doesn’t know where to start. So with the help of a director who could pass for a horny drill sergeant, a former star who doesn’t take her early retirement sitting down, a concerned and possibly psychotic mother who ends up being a pretty crappy roommate, and a fellow dancer who may or may not be trying to steal the role right out from under our girl’s nose, the new Swan Queen starts to shed her ivory feathers at the cost of her mind, body and being.

Now, when it comes to ballet, I’m at a loss. I know what a pirouette is, I’m pretty sure I’d heard of Swan Lake before, I know that it all looks outrageously painful, and that’s about it. Nothing against ballet, I could never be that flexible, just never been my scene and probably never will be. With that being said, I don’t know how authentic this is in regards to choreography or how this portrays the ballet world as a whole, but whether it totally misses the mark or hits the nail on the head, if ballet had always been this captivating, I would have been on board a long time ago.

So ballet is some brand new territory for director Darren Aronofsky, but everything else feels very familiar, and that’s always a darn good thing when you’re talking about Darren Aronofsky. From a visual standpoint, it’s like a mix between The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream. It’s as methodical as it is visceral, it’s all shaky cams all the time, pretty much every conversation, breakdown or moment alone with a character is filmed with an extreme close-up on their face, and every little detail, every “Did you see that?” moment that continually blurs the line between reality and insanity all make for the most bone-chilling experience I’ve had in a theater all year. Brought back some fond Jacob’s Ladder memories. It’s very cool to see Aronofsky switching up his style from painstakingly picturesque like with The Fountain and blending that together with a gritty approach that lands on the complete opposite end of what he was used to for so long. But as good as he is with a camera, I gotta say, his biggest strength still might be the way he manipulates sound. If you’ve seen Requiem, you probably know what I’m talking about.

Folks, listening to this movie is like nails on a chalkboard and I mean that in the best way possible. The way a pair of scissors sounds like a goddamn guillotine with each new fingernail it snips off, the way a tube of lipstick literally sighs like it’s having an orgasm when it’s first twisted open, the way you can hear every last bone crack when someone curls their toes or pirouettes off a split toenail, it puts your hair on end and it only gets harsher as the movie continues. No one else uses sound the way Aronofsky does and it’s as cringe-worthy as it is effective.

And on top of all this is regular Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell (the guy behind the “ass to ass” song from Requiem) who somehow manages to turn classical music into the soundtrack of a nightmare. It’s loud, it’s relentless, and considering he’s working with tunes we all know and have heard all our lives, it’s pretty amazing the way he transforms something so majestic into something so raw. Although that does seem to be a recurring theme with this movie.

But from a storytelling standpoint, it’s about as close to Pi as anything else, and I really like that association. Yeah, ballet is a cornerstone to the big picture, but more than anything, this is about one woman’s drive for perfection at any cost that starts out innocently enough but eventually becomes a descent into madness. I thought I knew what kind of movie I was getting into, but once that final Act rolled around, I quickly realized that I had my thumb up  my ass.

For the most part, this particular aspect is why it all works so well since the audience witnesses our Swan Queen’s transformation not as passive observers but as though we’re experiencing the plot through her eyes. The only catch is that when it’s used correctly, it turns into the scariest movie of the year, but then the whole “transformation” element gets used one too many times and it ends up just being…weird. Not gonna give away any specifics, but that scene in the trailer where she pulls a feather out of her shoulder blade, that’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about. Could have gone for fewer special effects is all, felt kinda silly and I don’t think that was the desired reaction.

Although her final transformation is one of the most stunning scenes of the whole damn movie and that’s all about the special effects. So that there’s the exception. Alright, enough with the technicalities because the acting here is freakin’ phenomenal, The Academy had better take notice, and I hope to God that the casting director here got a bonus check or something for picking these cats out. As great as they all are, it’s incredibly how much they look the part

Natalie Portman plays Nina, and while I’ve been of the mindset for the longest time now that Portman hasn’t given a better performance than the one she gave in The Professional, I’ll shut up now. Jesus, I can’t even imagine the physical and emotional lengths she had to go to in order to prepare for this role, but the girl goes gung-ho on both fronts. The way her spine protrudes out of her gaunt torso along with her naturally graceful, slender features that embody the White Swan end up making her descent down a path where the only way out is in that much more pronounced. It’s crazy in every sense of the word and Portman’s never been better. I’ve heard Aronofsky’s a hardass on the set, and Portman is living proof.

Mila Kunis with those temptress eyes of her is also fantastic as Nina’s bad girl frienemy, Lily. God, she’s sure come a long way since the days of Jackie, never knew she has such chops. Vincent Cassel with his towering stature that sweats confidence and demands obedience is perfect as Nina’s taskmaster of a director, Thomas. Big fan of Cassel, dude is a badass and more people need to recognize. Nice to see Winona Ryder making her annual cameo after last year’s Star Trek with her turn here as the craziest bitch of the later that Nina replaces, Beth. Slowly but surely making that comeback.

But fellas, ladies, Black Swan is a head fuck, a nerve fuck, and it left me flat-out rattled from the time it started to when I went to sleep four hours later. But by the same token, those are the very reasons I’m crazy about it. It’s as much a horror movie as anything I’ve seen over the past year, I was plugging my ears with my index fingers like the royal wuss I am, but it’s simply brilliant to watch, it’s erotic as all hell, and whether it’s right up your alley or leaves you repulsed, there’s no effing way you’re gonna forget it.

No idea how Aronofsky got some of the shots he did with so many mirrors around either. Wild stuff.

34 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2010 7:10 am

    I managed to see this movie completely blind – didn’t even see a frame of the trailer. So you can imagine how completely thrown off I was when I believed I was watching “another dance movie”.

    I loved where Aronofsky took this story…what he said about obsession, insecurity, and the price of perfection. It’s insane to think that at one time, this story was going to be part of THE WRESTLER. I don’t think I could have handled so much heartbreak in one film.

    • December 10, 2010 8:48 am

      That’s the way to see it, man. Only saw the trailer myself, but was totally taken aback by the way it ended up unfolding. Sure would have been interesting had it been part of The Wrestler, but it probably worked a whole lot better in this setting than it that one. Great stuff either way.

  2. December 10, 2010 12:54 pm

    This movie owned, ive seen it 3 times in cinema so far!

    • December 10, 2010 3:08 pm

      Jesus H Murphy, you got nerves of steel, dude. It does own though, won’t argue that.

  3. December 10, 2010 1:03 pm

    I’ve got two more weeks before I can see this so I’s skipping the review for now.

    How is the trailer for Tree of Life?

    • December 10, 2010 3:09 pm

      Un. Effing. Real. I need to do a Malick marathon beforehand, but it’s an epic trailer, looks like one of those movies that’s gonna blow minds and make people want to stop making movies altogether afterwards because of the bar it’s gonna set. Probably hyping it up way too much right now, but it was stunning.

      • December 13, 2010 5:15 pm

        Aiden – LMAO. Is it okay for a grown man to weep during a trailer? I really felt like weeping (but I held it in). Man, oh, man…tToL is going to be E.P.I.C!!!!!!!!

        I love the boldness, too, of putting Jessica Chastain’s name right up there with the big guns…heandlining the film just as much as Pitt and Penn.

  4. Aimée V. permalink
    December 10, 2010 2:29 pm

    I can’t wait to see this! OMG, I’m so excited!

  5. December 10, 2010 2:43 pm

    Everyone is so raving about this I shall be the first one to write a negative review even if I love it!!!! ahah

  6. December 13, 2010 4:40 pm

    You were most apt to point out the AMAZING sound design in this, which I failed to praise in my write-up:

    Nina’s “transformation” scene really was something else, too. Great trippy stuff.

    • December 13, 2010 5:00 pm

      Thanks, man. Yeah, Aronofsky doesn’t eff around with audio. Just insane what he pulls off here. Heading over to your review imminently.

  7. mcarteratthemovies permalink
    December 14, 2010 3:13 pm

    I am so !@$%&#@! excited to see this! And so jealous that you’ve seen it already! Aronofsky has never disappointed me, and the idea of a ballet film that’s also a study of a descent into madness is fascinating. I can’t wait to see how Natalie Portman tears into this part.

    • December 14, 2010 3:27 pm

      haha, it lives up to the hype and then some. definitely worth getting excited over. and glad to have you back around the blogosphere, M. quit workin’ so damn much.

  8. December 15, 2010 2:17 pm

    Opens wide Friday. I can’t wait.

  9. December 16, 2010 6:53 pm

    Hate to be redundant with the comments but YEP, really looking forward to this too. Big fan of Darren Aronofsky, and love Vincent Cassel. Portman is hit and miss but looks well suited here. Bang up review as always.

    • December 20, 2010 1:20 pm

      Thank ya’ much, right there with ya’ on all those points, and hope you end up digging it.

  10. December 18, 2010 7:09 am

    lipstick orgasm? werent they a new wave band…
    spot on review Aiden – the best experience ive had in the cinema this year. one minute i was scared shitless, the next i was crying, the next i was laughing – a terrific watch. i agree with you that its very like Pi with its whole paranoia/psychological/horror aspect. cant wait to go see it again.

    • December 20, 2010 1:25 pm

      haha. if they were, they should have sold way more records with that name. I don’t know if I could handle seeing this twice in a theater, once was nerveracking enough. great stuff though, glad you agree. we’re on a roll here, dude.

  11. Nessa Nguyen permalink
    December 19, 2010 8:41 pm

    I saw this yesterday and was very impressed. I love dancing, and was naturally mesmerized by the ballet aspect of this movie. Also, as you discussed, the constant close-ups coupled with the movement creates a nauseous feeling of motion sickness. Nina’s expressions were strained and pained throughout the movie, revealing mental distress even before the audience grasps on it.

  12. January 6, 2011 10:55 pm

    Hatter said something above about how it’s hard to think that this was, at one time, supposed to be meshed with The Wrestler. If there’s one big negative about Black Swan for me, though, it’s that it’s a bit too similar to The Wrestler. If you’ve only seen one of them I’d imagine that it holds power, but this coming so soon after that one (and having seen both) dampens the message a bit. No, it’s not exactly the same message, but there ain’t a whole lot that’s different, either. The details of their lives are where the largest gaps come in.

    Either way, I pretty much loved this one, too. Aronofsky might not tell the most interesting stories, but man, can he tell them with expert precision and technical prowess, with assists from kickass actors and special f/x artists and Clint Mansell and…

    • January 7, 2011 9:22 am

      I don’t know, man. There are connections in certain regards, but comparing Nina and the Ram’s characters is like comparing chalk and cheese to me. It’s not like comparing Lord of the Rings with Flipper or anything, but I think I might need to go back and watch The Wrestler again to actually foster a debate here.

      All the same, this movie was fucking awesome for all the reasons you named and all the reasons that come after that last elipses. Aronofsky, man. What a boss.

      • January 7, 2011 12:36 pm

        It’s not so much that the characters are the same, but the themes on display are awfully bound together, from the pressures of performing – physically and emotionally – to the threat of constant competition to the stress of life outside the ring/stage.

      • January 7, 2011 12:39 pm

        Damn. Well put. I am converted.

  13. steve williams permalink
    February 27, 2011 6:12 am

    Absolute dross.
    Portman was unconvincing as a dancer.
    My pick for most ridiculous/pretensious/over-rated twaddle of the year.

    • February 28, 2011 1:54 pm

      Bummer, man. My dancing knowledge starts and ends with the robot, so I don’t have much to say in that regard, but sorry it was such a disappointment. Thanks for visiting, though!

  14. Miki permalink
    March 8, 2011 12:52 am

    Another stupid movie


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