Should I Watch..? 'Black Swan'
What's the big deal?
Black Swan is a psychological horror film released in 2010 and was directed by Darren Aronofsky. The film revolves around a ballet company's production of Swan Lake and the battle for the lead role between the company's insecure star and a new arrival. The film stars Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder. Aronofsky considers the film a companion piece to his earlier movie The Wrestler as both films look at performers pushing themselves to attain a higher standard in their respective art-forms. Released to rabid expectation, the film was a hit with critics and went on to win several awards including a Best Actress Oscar for Portman. The film also earned more than $329 million worldwide although the film did generate controversy from some professional ballet dancers about portraying the world of ballet as well as how much of the dancing shown on screen was performed by Portman instead of a double.
What's it about?
28-year-old Nina Sayers is a dancer at a prestigious New York ballet company and is gearing up for the new season with a production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. After the company's prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre is forced to pull out for the lead, artistic director Thomas Leroy announces open auditions and Nina puts herself forward. The lead role is a dual part for the White Swan - innocent and pure - and the more seductive Black Swan. Nina performs well as the White Swan but proves inadequate as the Black Swan.
Nevertheless, Nina finds herself securing the role despite fending off a sexual advance from Leroy. Struggling to get the role of the Black Swan right, Thomas asks Nina to observe a new dancer within the company - Lily, who seems perfect for the role. Fearing that she might lose her place to Lily, Nina pushes herself hard in order to understand the role of the Black Swan and as the start of the season moves closer, she begins suffering from hallucinations of a doppelganger stalking her as well as several unexplained scratches across her body.
Nina Sayers / The Swan Queen
Lily / The Black Swan
Thomas Leroy / The Gentleman
Erica Sayers / The Queen
Elizabeth "Beth" MacIntyre / The Dying Swan
David Moreau / The Prince
Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz & John McLaughlin*
Release Date (UK)
21st January, 2011
Drama, Horror, Psychological, Thriller
Best Actress (Portman)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing
What's to like?
Traditional horror films - you know, the ones that involve some crazed killer or monster stalking a group of good-looking teenagers - never work for me. I much prefer films that mess with your mind a little using camera trickery and subtlety to catch you off-guard. And that's exactly what Black Swan does. It goes from being an intense drama about the competition between dancers into a dark, twisted nightmare that feels reminiscent of some of David Cronenberg's finest body-horrors like his remake of The Fly or Videodrome. The film is deeply unsettling to watch, especially as Nina's grip on reality loosens, and Aronofsky has created a wonderfully off-putting film to unnerve you.
Portman is fully deserving of her Best Actress Oscar, despite the criticism that she wasn't dancing all the time. Of course she wasn't but she certainly danced for some of the time and looks every bit as rakish and poised as an actual ballet dancer. You can believe that she did dance for every scene. And the level of intensity she brings to the role is astonishing - for every twist and turn the film makes, you instantly buy into it because of Portman's reaction. And when the end comes and she fully commits to embracing the madness, it's genuinely disturbing. Kunis and Cassel give her ample support as the other main players but this is Portman's film and she seizes it with both hands.
- Aronofsky first approached Portman about appearing in a film about ballet back in 2000 but had trouble getting the project off the ground. Despite this, Portman trained for a year as a ballet dancer and even paid for it with her own money. Aronofsky states that the film would never have got off the ground without Portman's enthusiasm and dedication.
- Aronofsky would subtly try to pitch Kunis and Portman against each other such as keeping them apart off-screen and texting one actress to tell them how good a performance the other gave. It didn't work - Kunis and Portman were already good friends so they congratulated each other instead!
- Portman met her future husband Benjamin Millipied on set. Millipied not only played the role of The Prince during the film's production of Swan Lake but also choreographed the film's many dance scenes.
What's not to like?
I will admit that the film does require a certain level of intelligence to get the most out of it. Having a knowledge and understanding of Swan Lake is almost essential otherwise the story won't make as much sense (the film actively mirrors the plot of the ballet, to a large extent). The film does leave much open to interpretation and stubbornly refuses to answer every question that is raised and because I don't understand the full intricacies of the ballet's narrative, some of the film was lost on me.
I feel that the criticism from certain ballet dancers about Black Swan feels a little bit like sour grapes. Of course the film piles on the cliché because that's what we expect - I imagine most of the people who saw this film had never seen a ballet performed in their life. To most people, it is a strange and unfathomable world and we are ignorant of the rigours the professionals put themselves through. But without those rigours, the film wouldn't work. I understand why Aronofsky considers this a 'companion' to The Wrestler which sees Mickey Rourke undertake all the unseen tricks professional wrestlers go through in order to secure a decent performance in the ring. I actually prefer The Wrestler but only by virtue of the fact that I saw it first - this is a tense, chilling psychodrama that offers a bit more darkness and depth than any film about ballet should.
Should I watch it?
Rarely have I encountered a film that was so different to how I expected it. Black Swan is far from the fluffy and camp world you might anticipate and instead throws into a complex and unsettling nightmare of repressed desires, jealousy and rage. Portman's performance is simply electric and provides the film with the dark heart it needs. This is absorbing, twisted stuff and while it won't be for everybody, it will certainly give you the creeps for a couple of hours.
Great For: Portman's career and love life, Aronofsky's reputation as a director, fans of occasional psycho-horror, perverts with a pause button
Not So Great For: the world of ballet, street cred, anyone with no idea what Swan Lake is about
What else should I watch?
As one might expect, there aren't many dance-related psychology horror films out there which puts Black Swan in a group of precisely one. Recent dance-related films include the fairly forgettable comedy Cuban Fury, the award-hogging La La Land which saw Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in fine form or the limp remake of Footloose. Of course, if you simply have to combine dancing and horror then I guess the only other place to look is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
More interesting to me are those rarefied psychological horrors as opposed to the typical blood-and-guts show featuring a gimmicky killer of some sorts. I prefer films that don't show me the baddie, allowing the imagination to fill in the terrifying blanks, or trick me with on-screen illusions like Donnie Darko does brilliantly well. The original Japanese version of Ring is one of the most unforgiving psycho-horrors I've ever seen (let me put it this way, I'm too scared to attempt to watch Ring 2) while a film guaranteed to give you nightmares is the thriller Audition which features someone more evil than an undead demon crawling out of your TV.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox