Black Swan

Movie Information

The Story A ballerina in a Lincoln Center opera company lands the lead role in a production of "Swan Lake" -- and the experience threatens her sanity. The Lowdown: A rewarding, disturbing, full-blooded essay in psychological horror of a kind we rarely see -- and one of the best films of 2010.
Genre: Psychological Thriller/Horror
Director: Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Rated: R

If Roman Polanski had made The Red Shoes (1948), the results might have been something like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Aronofsky is certainly indebted to both Michael Powell’s film and to Polanski in Black Swan. On occasion, he even directly quotes from The Red Shoes, and he’s in the realm of psychological thriller that questions the nature of identity that’s been at the center of many Polanski films for 50 years. And yet for all its areas of influence, Aronofsky’s film has a character all its own. Is it the best film of 2010? Perhaps. It’s certainly a major contender.

In its simplest terms, this is the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballet dancer who is essentially living the dream of her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), whose own career was side-lined by her pregnancy. Nina dances for a ballet company at Lincoln Center that is overseen by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). The company’s new season is to start with Leroy’s re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Since Leroy has discarded his star—and lover—Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), it’s just possible that Nina might land the lead role. The problem is that while Leroy finds her perfect for the White Swan, he finds her classical perfection entirely wrong for the Black Swan. Seeing no dark side in her weighs against Nina’s chances (as does her apparent unwillingness to succumb to Leroy’s advances), yet she somehow gets the role—after seemingly being told she hasn’t.

Factored into the equation is newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis), who is everything Nina isn’t. She is the opposite of perfect and is openly sexual, where Nina is repressed and priggish. In fact, Lily truly is the Black Swan. Nina is drawn to her—either in spite of or because of the fact that Lily is a rival. The rivalry is made even more pronounced when Leroy makes Lily Nina’s understudy. Nina is fascinated by Lily’s sexual nature and her freedom—perhaps she’s even romantically inclined toward her. Lily is what she’d like to resemble—everything her mother has prevented her from being in her smothering, obsessive pursuit of Nina’s career.

That’s the setup—or so it seems—and the story follows Nina’s progression through the rehearsals and the premiere of “Swan Lake.” But the question—one that becomes ever more slippery—is where reality leaves off and Nina’s fantasy life begins. And the film isn’t exactly answering that question, choosing instead to leave the exact point of departure between truth and fantasy uncertain. That was suggested by the film’s very first scene—and by the end you realize that we’ve never known how much of what we’ve seen was in the mind of our main character.

It’s a skillful approach as we watch Nina descend into horror and madness—very much evoking memories of Catherine Deneuve in Polanski’s Repulson (1965), of Polanski himself in The Tenant (1976) and even of Ewan McGregor in this year’s The Ghost Writer. All of these films are ones in which the identity of the main character threatens to be stamped out by the encroachment of madness, or a stronger personality, or both. Yet Polanski works in a very different tone than does Aronofsky. Polanski never made a film this excessive and operatic. Black Swan is a much more flamboyant work, which is only right considering the subject matter. This is a film about people living in the larger-than-life world of the performing arts. It needs to be big—and, thankfully, that’s exactly the emotionally real, viscerally disturbing, phantasmagorically compelling movie Aronofsky and his fearless star serve up.

I actually cannot do justice to Black Swan within these confines. It’s too rich and too dense with various possible readings and dark undercurrents. But it is, without a doubt, a movie that belongs on your must-see list. Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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14 thoughts on “Black Swan

  1. My interest in this film has grown from zero to curious to quite eager, after reading this review.

    It doesn’t hit screens down under until mid-January.

  2. Steven

    [b]If Roman Polanski had made The Red Shoes (1948), the results might have been something like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.[/b]

    I’m sold.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I wonder if any “direct quotes” from THE RED SHOES might be coincidental. Check out this interview:

    Frankly, I think he’s kidding himself. You’ll notice he hedges the issue, making it sound at first like he hadn’t seen The Red Shoes before making the film. Then it becomes obvious he did and he remarks that he wasn’t influenced by it, and then that gets changed to he didn’t try to be influenced by it. Coincidental? Compare the way early scenes of Portman dancing are shot and edited and the scene with Moira Shearer dancing to Swan Lake to a gramophone record in the tacky ballet company early on in Red Shoes. Unconscious quotation? Maybe. Coincidental? I have trouble with that.

    Then again, one aspect that seems to me inescapably out of Red Shoes may simply be the script, and while I have no doubt he had impact on the script, Aronofosky did not write it.

  4. john r

    I will support many of the accolades given for this film, and I expect it to make quite a splash with the award comittees, but I found it to be a very uncomfortable film to watch. Aronofsky films seem to have a tendency to feel dark, and leave me with a lingering feeling of disquiet. “Requiem” haunted me for a long while after seeing it, this film was not that impactful.

  5. Ken Hanke

    “Requiem” haunted me for a long while after seeing it, this film was not that impactful.

    I agree with this to the (to me) debatable degree that my response to Requiem was (and remains), “What a brilliant movie — and I pray that I never see it again.” I don’t have that reaction to Black Swan, which is for me a much more intriguing film that I believe will pay dividends on subsequent viewings.

  6. Me

    “If Roman Polanski had made The Red Shoes (1948), the results might have been something like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.

    I’m sold.”

    Me too, even though ive heard it has its cliche and predictable moments.

  7. Bert

    An amazing film. I especially love the fact that most comic con fanboys will never set foot in an indy theatre; and thus miss Natalie Portman in a first rate erotic performance.

  8. Me

    So which is the years better horror psychological thriller Black Swan or Amer?

  9. Ken Hanke

    So which is the years better horror psychological thriller Black Swan or Amer?

    Considering Amer has only had an extremely limited release, I doubt many comparisons are likely to be made till it gets a DVD release in March. Since it appears to be aimed at people who think gialli are of more than curio interest, I think it unlikely even then that it’s going be more than a niche item.

  10. Steven Adam Renkovish

    Excellent review for an excellent film! I love it. Aronofsky’s best since REQUIEM. Now, I’m all pumped to see Terrence Malick’s TREE OF LIFE, since I saw the trailer at the screening for BLACK SWAN. TREE OF LIFE looks awesome.

  11. kjh.childers

    “the emotionally real, viscerally disturbing, phantasmagorically compelling” …. My Ken, how do you in fact justice to this film!

    Part’s of this film’s soundtrack alone are as transcending as John Corigliano’s score of that dark 80’s film by Mr. Russell you showed not too long ago! I must add Mansell’s masterpiece to my collection.

    Overall … a film like this requires time to digest …those “possible readings and dark undercurrents” so make me giggle a bit inside at my own mental instabilities! I recommend you-tube track # 11 – “Night of Terror” in order to feel the major key of the Sublime!

    A classic for sure!

  12. DrSerizawa

    Just saw this and had to talk about it. This is probably the most emotionally powerful movie I’ve seen this year and maybe previous years too. The Black Swan dance with the perfect makeup was a stunning performance. And for me to find a movie on ballet engrossing says a lot about the film’s power. I especially appreciate that the movie didn’t try to explain what was happening and left it up to the viewer. This may very well be the best movie of the year. It tops Shutter Island in my book.

    This is why I frequent this website. I’d probably never have gone to see it otherwise. I’d hate to have missed in on the big screen.

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