Movie Review: BLACK SWAN

When awards season rolls around, and even for months beforehand, we’re subjected to a lot of hyperbole, where every picture is breathtakingly touted as “best of the year!” and every performance is called Oscar-worthy. More often than not, this is a lot of hogwash but sometimes it turns out a particular piece of work has warranted the buzz.

One such example is Natalie Portman’s portrayal of a ballerina whose sanity slowly unravels in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (opening Friday, Dec. 3). Nina (Portman) gets the coveted lead role in a NYC ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, but pressure from a director (Vincent Cassel) who expresses doubts about her ability to play both the white and black swans, plus the presence of a young passionate dancer (Mila Kunis) who seems to know a little if not All About Eve—causes Nina to become paranoid about being replaced. She goes to extremes to keep the part, to make herself perfect, though she’s really descending into madness.

Portman has done edgy and dark before but has never been this effective. When she shaved her head for V for Vendetta, it seemed like a stunt, a too-jarring attempt to break away from her nice-girl image, and the result was unconvincing. But it’s completely believable for the actress to inhabit Nina, with her natural grace, lithe (though much thinner-than-usual) body and swan-like neck. Her pro-level dancing—Portman did much of it herself—seals the deal.

But then, just as the swan splits into two selves, Portman shows us that the sweet pretty exterior is just a cover-up for Nina’s disturbing inner core. Sure, staying on top in the cutthroat world of professional ballet must be stressful, but Nina goes over the edge and Portman makes her mental deterioration terrifying. Nina’s instability makes the movie quite suspenseful at times, for we never know what she’ll do or how far she’ll go. She can have wild sex one minute and fly into a rage the next. She can be joyful and fall apart at the same time. Much has been said about Annette Bening’s performance in The Kids Are All Right and how it’s her time to finally win an Oscar, but I think Portman’s work is much more complex. I haven’t seen Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine yet (will do so tonight) but I’ve seen all the other contenders and think Portman deserves the best actress gold this year.

Kunis, who seems to only get more captivating the older she gets, keeps us guessing as Lily, Nina’s competitor. Her friendliness and steady gaze give nothing away about her true motives. Sometimes it’s harder (and more interesting) to hide something in a performance than to show too much and Kunis does the former, keeping the conflict in play throughout the film. Barbara Hershey, playing Nina’s mother who is a former ballerina, manages to make Mom sympathetic. As Hershey said in the Q&A session I attended (more on that below), she’s not “a mother from hell but a mother in hell,” one mentally ill person taking care of another mentally ill person.

Aronofsky can get a little carried away with imagery in his movies but here the weirdness works because Nina sees things that aren’t rooted in reality. And the way he shoots the ballet is thrilling and visceral, capturing the pain and sweat and blood of it all along with the beauty.

After the Variety screening, Aronofsky, Portman, Kunis, Cassel and Hershey came out to discuss the movie and answer questions. A few highlights:

  • Portman hadn’t danced since she was 12 so she started training a year in advance, using her own money to hire a trainer, without even knowing the movie would get financed. She didn’t just do ballet; she cross-trained rigorously. Then the financing came together and fell apart a couple times but she kept training based on her faith in Aronofsky. She even kept it up while shooting another movie [Your Highness, out next year]. She lost about 20 pounds for the role.
  • Kunis lost about the same amount of weight, which was the hardest thing for her. She trained seven days a week for two months before shooting [her character doesn’t dance as much as Portman’s in the movie].
  • Because the movie only had a $13 million budget, there was apparently no medic on set at one point. Portman was horrified when she found out because the actors and dancers “were losing a toenail a day” so she told the money people to take away her trailer. “Sure enough,” she said, “the next day, the trailer was gone and the nurse was back.”
  • Aronofsky made a point to take his camera backstage and onstage with the dancers. He wanted the audience to hear the heavy breathing, see the pain in their feet and experience the effort it takes to create this beauty we usually watch from afar.
  • No studio wanted to do this movie despite Aronofsky’s success with The Wrestler. He’s made five films and every time, he’s been the only person in the room who wanted to make it. He’s looking forward to his next project, The Wolverine, because everyone in the room wants it made.

Nerd verdict: Dark, beautiful Swan

Photos: Niko Tavernise



  • Reply
    December 1, 2010 at 6:38 am

    Splendid review! This is one I’m looking forward to, Elyse. Director Aronofsky always makes interesting films (though some are uncomfortable to watch, see Requiem for a Dream). Thanks for this.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      December 1, 2010 at 4:10 pm

      There are uncomfortable scenes here, too, but they work within the context of the story.

  • Reply
    December 1, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    I love your reviews, Elyse. Splendid! I’ve read another one and, though it sang praises for Portman’s performance, didn’t quite explain why the part was so amazingly played. I think Natalie Portman is one of those great actresses who is seldom overlooked or not quite acknowledged, ’cause of other “acting powerhouses”, but I’ve found many of her performances very good. And the fact that she’s gorgeous isn’t a turnoff.

    I’m amazed at Mila Kunis. I’ve always thought of her as a so-so actress, but based in your review, I think she’s growing to be quite good. Or it is perhaps Arnofsky’s amazing work (he always seems to get the best of his actors, which is the mark of a great director).

    Anyway, I’m so looking forward to seeing the film.

    Thanks again!

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      December 1, 2010 at 4:19 pm

      Thanks, Poncho. Like many, I’ve been a fan of Portman’s since her debut in The Professional. And remember Beautiful Girls? She’s done solid work from the beginning. If Sandra Bullock could win for her performance last year (I’m a big Bullock fan but that was a lightweight job), Portman should go all the way with this.

      As for Kunis, she looks stunning and makes Lily mesmerizing even when you think she might be bad news.

  • Reply
    December 1, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    I keep hearing about Natalie Portman’s performance in this. Nice to know someone who has actually seen it can verify the hype. While Portman hasn’t done a lot lately, except for little seen Brothers maybe, but I find her interesting to watch whenever she does do a movie. Good to know there may be some of the promise she showed in The Professional wasn’t just a one-off.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      December 1, 2010 at 4:21 pm

      She was very sympathetic in Brothers (as were the child actresses who played her daughters). I think she’s long proven she’ll have a long career.

  • Reply
    December 1, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    Love the review, Elyse! Thanks! My husband loves Natalie Portman (as do I) so the home bodies might actually make it to the theater for this one. She trained for a whole year in advance? Can’t wait to see the dance sequences!

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      December 1, 2010 at 4:26 pm

      It’s amazing how convincing she is as a ballerina. There were scenes that started with close-ups of the dancer’s toes on point and I thought it was a stand-in, but then the camera panned up the legs or pulled out to a wider show and I saw it was Natalie. That training paid off!

  • Reply
    Coffee and a Book Chick
    December 1, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    I love the insights into this film. I saw the preview for it and because I. love. ballet. I know I have to see it. Looks like a perfectly twisted and creepy film, and I loved The Wrestler, so I’m all there to support Aronofsky.

    But how did Natalie Portman lose 20 pounds anyway? She’s already so tiny!

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      December 1, 2010 at 4:30 pm

      She said she really couldn’t afford to lose that much because she’s only 5’3″. In the movie, you can see her ribs protruding prominently through her leotards. When she came out to do Q&A, she looked great, back to her “healthy weight.”

  • Reply
    December 1, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Wasn’t really a big fan of THE WRESTLER. I know, I know…everybody out there is going “WHAT?! ARE YOU CRAZY?!?” Well, I wasn’t. It was good to see Rourke again, but I wasn’t as blown away as others seem to have been.

    Black Swan looks very interesting, but Aronofsky never really does it for me. Still, Natalie Portman and the always underrated Rachel Bilson? I’m there!

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    December 3, 2010 at 12:21 am

    I’m happy to read your reassurances that Natalie Portman has put on some weight since and is looking lovely and healthy. It alarmed me, too, when I heard she had shed kilos for the role. And how daunting to think of what real-life dancers go through for their art. Back to the movie, though, thanks for your fine review, PCN. It sounds intriguing and I hope I’m not too much of a scaredy-pants when I see it!!

  • Reply
    December 3, 2010 at 6:52 am

    Quite frankly, until I hear from people I know who’ve actually seen a film, all that Oscar-worthy buzz is usually a turnoff for me. Often feels like they’re trying to ram it down my throat. So I’m glad to hear that there’s something to the buzz for Portman and Black Swan! Though, from just watching the trailer for the film, I think I’ll want something happy to do afterwards. 😉 Great review, Elyse!

  • Reply
    December 3, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    GREAT review, PCN!! I’m really looking forward to seeing this film…brings back ballet memories. ;D Glad to know you enjoyed it!

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