Introduction

Black Swan

Black Swan
  • Country of production: USA
  • Year: 2010
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Darren Aronofsky
  • Running time: 110 minutes
  • Official website: www.blackswanmovie.co.uk
 

Black Swan is a dark psychological thriller about a dancer in a New York ballet company whose obsessive quest for perfection causes her to become dangerously unhinged. Fantasy and reality become intertwined in her mind as she becomes enmeshed in a web of intrigue, and she is tortured by paranoid hallucinations as the drama approaches its thunderous finale. ‘Alternately disturbing and exhilarating' (Mike Goodridge, Screen International), this is ‘bravura moviemaking' and many critics expect NATALIE PORTMAN to win an Oscar for her ‘searing' performance in the title role (Geoffrey Macnab, The Independent).

When artistic director Thomas (VINCENT CASSEL) decides to replace Beth (WINONA RYDER) as prima ballerina, Nina (Portman) is desperate to be chosen as the lead in the new season's opening production of Swan Lake. This calls for her to play both the virtuous White Swan and her double and alter ego, the Black Swan, who is a seductive but malign influence and her rival.

Nina's disciplined ballet training and her determinedly protective mother (BARBARA HERSHEY) have instilled the technique and control she needs to play the graceful White Swan role. But the sexually predatory Thomas taunts her by saying that she is too uptight to lose herself in the Black Swan role. Both bewitched and threatened by her sensual rival Lily (MILA KUNIS), who personifies the Black Swan, Nina develops a twisted friendship with her. Increasingly disturbed, Nina sees her own image in other people and is persecuted by her reflection, with her body undergoing strange transformations.

Black Swan is a companion piece to director DARREN ARONOFSKY's previous movie, The Wrestler (2008), starring Mickey Rourke. Like that film, it depicts a troubled athlete-performer subjecting themselves to brutal physical punishment in the single-minded pursuit of their career.

Portman does most of her own dancing in the film although a professional ballerina doubles for her in some shots. She learnt ballet as a child and resumed training 10 months before filming began, losing 20lb to look more like a ballet dancer. Befitting her part, she sustained concussion and dislocated a rib during filming.

Re-view

Black Swan

LIFE REFLECTING ART

The Red Shoes set the bar pretty high for anguished melodrama en pointe... Now Darren Aronofsky has delivered a movie so compellingly deranged and deliciously overwrought that it makes the earlier film look like Angelina Ballerina.'

(LISA MULLEN, SIGHT & SOUND)

Black Swan is pre-occupied with mirrors, just as Powell and Pressburger's ballet drama The Red Shoes (1948) was. It echoes that film, too, in its ambitious and self-destructive lead dancer and the possessive impresario who ‘discovers' her and makes her a slave to her art.

The characters in Black Swan also reflect the Swan Lake story they are dancing, notably the innocent Nina and her rival, Lily. The conflict between good and evil in the classic tale is seen in Thomas conjuring up Nina's darker side.

En pointe, in pain

There are parallels, too, between Black Swan and its genesis. Just as Thomas aims to make his dramatisation of Swan Lake "visceral and real", so director Darren Aronofsky has imbued his film with eroticism and suffering. (As Lisa Mullen pointed out in Sight & Sound, Black Swan differs in this respect from The Red Shoes which insisted that aestheticism was incompatible with reality - the dancer there was forced to choose between ballet and marriage.)

Thomas's approach was also brought to mind when Natalie Portman revealed that Aronofsky would subtly try to pit her and Mila Kunis against each other during filming as a way of increasing the on-screen tension between their characters.

Portman embodies her character more than actors usually do because her role is so physically demanding. Just like Nina's, her performance goes beyond what is normally expected. ‘The vision of Ms. Portman's own body straining with so much tremulous, tremendous effort, her pale arms fluttering in desperation, grounds the story in the real' (Manohla Dargis, The New York Times).

Method in her madness

Portman's endeavours to empathise closely with her character are ‘courageous' (Peter Debruge, Variety) and ‘heroic' (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times). Her performance is ‘wondrously committed... just the sort of daredevil achievement the Academy loves to reward' (Richard Corliss, Time magazine).

Roger Ebert testified in the Chicago Sun-Times to the power of her performance: ‘Somehow she goes over the top and yet stays in character... The other actors are like dance partners holding her aloft.'

She is ‘captivating' as Nina, agreed Mike Goodridge in Screen International, and not just because of her dancing prowess or her lean ballerina's frame. ‘Like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion or Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, she captures the confusion of a repressed young woman thrown into a world of danger and temptation with frightening veracity.'

The world of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), particularly the idea that an approaching evil is being simultaneously feared and welcomed, is also suggested by the oppressive apartment interiors and looming disorientated close-ups, thought Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. He similarly thought that it has something of the secret mental nightmare of Polanski's Repulsion (1965).

Aronofsky's handling of creeping menace and psychological tension is ‘masterful', commented Lisa Mullen in Sight & Sound. The hand-held camera work creates intimacy in Nina's off-stage life and gives it its claustrophobic feel. The soundtrack is also unsettling, with its distortions of Tchaikovsky's music, tense little intakes of breath and remote rumblings and screechings.

In addition, Nina's smothering, jealous mother, as acted by Barbara Hershey, is ‘wonderfully menacing' (Mike Goodridge, Screen International) and ‘played with just the right level of creepily protective resentment' (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian).

By contrast, Aronofsky brings the dance sequences to life by filming them ‘with a circling, weaving, bobbing camera that seems to be moving (almost dancing itself) in rhythm with the music. The performance sequences at their best come close to ecstasy' (David Denby, The New Yorker).

 
Pro-files

Black Swan

NATALIE PORTMAN

NINA SAYERS / THE SWAN QUEEN

Film history is littered with the names of child stars who struggled to continue their careers into adulthood. Natalie Portman is a striking exception to this trend. Having been spotted by an agent looking for child models in New York at the age of 11, Jerusalem-born Portman was cast by French director Luc Besson in Leon (1994). The film, about the unlikely friendship between an assassin and a 12-year-old girl, played by Portman, was controversial (largely for the queasily flirtatious sparks between the older man and this pre-teen); but Portman's compelling screen presence was beyond doubt. Her subsequent role as a vulnerable and troubled LA adolescent in Michael Mann's thriller Heat in 1995 confirmed this promise, not least because she held her own with that film's revered leads, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.

Supporting roles with big-name directors followed, including Woody Allen in his charming musical Everyone Says I Love You (1996) and Tim Burton in his bonkers sci-fi parody Mars Attacks! (1996). Her real breakthrough came in 1999, as the imperilled Queen Amidala in the long-awaited Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace, albeit often hidden under layers of white make-up.

More single-minded actresses might have used the prominence of the Star Wars role as a platform to further their career, but it says something for the intelligence that Portman has shown in many of her roles that she took a partial break from acting to complete a degree at Harvard (in psychology - surely a useful qualification for any dramatic performer).

Having graduated, she was memorable in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain (2003) and Oscar-nominated for Mike Nichols's spiky film adaptation of Patrick Marber's London-set play Closer (2004), which charted the complicated and sometimes toxic relationship between four lovers.

The adult subject matter of that film marked the start of Portman's more mature roles and the underrated 2006 film V for Vendetta revealed a subversive side to her as a shaven-headed political activist in a dystopian London of the near-future. Since then, she has shown impressive range, with roles including a bubbly toy-shop assistant in the children's film Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium (2007), Anne Boleyn in the period film The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) and a blue-collar army wife in 2009 Afghan war drama Brothers.

She has also recently written, directed and acted in an episode from New York, I Love You (2009).

VINCENT CASSEL

THOMAS LEROY / THE GENTLEMAN

Vincent Cassel is among France's biggest stars, and combines a career as a leading man there with occasional high-profile roles in U.S. and British movies.

After a steady run of bit parts in French television and cinema, Cassel got his breakthrough in 1995, playing the embittered young hero of La Haine, a vivid portrait of life in an impoverished suburb of Paris that had much the same impact in France as Trainspotting did in the UK. The success of that film and Cassel's incendiary performance and dashing looks meant the young actor was much in demand: as well as big roles for French film-makers such as Luc Besson, for whom he played a nobleman in 1999 medieval drama Joan of Arc, he also branched out into international cinema. An early English-language part was in the 1998 British period film Elizabeth (as another French nobleman, the Duc d'Anjou).

In 2002 he played the lead in French director Gaspar Noé's brutal, shockingly violent Irreversible as the vengeful husband of a woman who is raped (she was played by Monica Bellucci, Cassel's real-life wife). That movie was controversial, but it didn't stop Cassel from being cast as the suave super-villain of glossy 2004 Hollywood comedy Ocean's Twelve and in 2007 he co-starred alongside Brad Pitt and George Clooney in its sequel, Ocean's Thirteen. That same year he played a Russian gangster alongside Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg's London-set Eastern Promises. But it was as another criminal, the eponymous real-life bank robber in gripping French drama Mesrine (2008), that he enjoyed his meatiest role to date. This ambitious, sprawling two-part film was a superb showcase for Cassel's on-screen charisma.

MILA KUNIS

LILY / THE BLACK SWAN

Born outside the U.S. like Natalie Portman, Mila and her family moved to LA from her native Ukraine when she was eight. Starting acting classes when she was nine and spending her early teens working in television and commercials, Kunis got her break when she was 14 on the TV sitcom That ‘70s Show in 1998.

Her TV prominence led to movie roles. She was a Russian assassin in action movie Max Payne (2008) and co-starred alongside Denzel Washington in thriller The Book of Eli (2010). Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) was well received and revealed a gift for comedy that was also in evidence in the low-key but charming suburban comedy Extract (2009).

BARBARA HERSHEY

ERICA SAYERS / THE QUEEN

Born in Hollywood in 1948, Barbara Hershey has worked in both TV and movies since the late 1960s, with a significant early part coming in the backwoods 1930s-set crime movie Boxcar Bertha (1972), made by a young Martin Scorsese. She has gone on to play a remarkably wide range of roles, including the girlfriend of a Shaolin monk warrior (in 1970s TV series Kung Fu which co-starred David Carradine, with whom she had a child), an anti-apartheid activist (A World Apart in 1988) and Mary Magdalene (reuniting with Scorsese in his The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988).

She really came to prominence in the 1980s, with major roles in some of that decade's most critically acclaimed films, such as The Right Stuff (1983). One of her mostly highly regarded performances was in Woody Allen's charming New York-set 1986 romantic drama Hannah and Her Sisters (as one of the sisters). In 1988 she co-starred as Bette Midler's closest friend in the tearjerker Beaches, one of her biggest commercial successes.

Her role in The Portrait of a Lady in 1996 earned Hershey an Oscar nomination.

WINONA RYDER

BETH MACINTYRE / THE DYING SWAN

Like Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder began her acting career young: her Hollywood debut was in the 1986 high-school drama Lucas, aged 15. Her breakthrough came in 1988 when director Tim Burton cast her as the teenager plagued by ghosts in Beetlejuice. She was brilliantly nasty as the vengeful high-school student heroine of the 1989 black comedy Heathers and reunited with Tim Burton in 1990 for Edward Scissorhands, which co-starred Johnny Depp.

Martin Scorsese made superb and moving use of Ryder's on-screen vulnerability as the young ingénue corrupted by 19th-century New York high society in The Age of Innocence in 1993. That role earned her an Oscar-nomination, as did Little Women the following year.

After playing the lead role - a psychiatric patient - in 1999 film Girl, Interrupted, the following decade found Ryder keeping a relatively low profile professionally. But a cameo in the 2009 Star Trek film (as Spock's mother, no less) and a substantial role in 2009 U.S. drama The Private Lives of Pippa Lee suggest a return to form for this versatile and compelling actress.

DARREN ARONOFSKY

DIRECTOR

Darren Aronofsky's 1998 directorial debut Pi was critically acclaimed. But shot as it was in black-and-white on a tiny budget and revolving around the breakdown of a maths prodigy, few would have guessed that its maker would become one of Hollywood's most influential names. Aronofsky followed his strange but engaging debut with a grim portrait of New York heroin addicts, Requiem for a Dream (2000). His third feature, The Fountain (2006), was a visually sumptuous sci-fi fantasy starring his then-fiancée Rachel Weisz. The film was not a success, but he staged a spectacular comeback with his 2008 film The Wrestler (starring Mickey Rourke as a professional wrestler, himself staging a comeback).

 
Cinemas

Black Swan

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