- Rated R
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All photos © Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
here’s a good chance that most people’s only exposure to Darren Aronofsky is his 2008 drama, “The Wrestler,” and for them, “Black Swan” may seem like a major departure. But for those familiar with the director’s full body of work – particularly his debut feature, “Pi,” and his follow-up, “Requiem for a Dream” – his new movie is business as usual. That’s what makes the reports that “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler” were originally conceived as one film so strange, because while they definitely share some basic themes, “Black Swan” is so tonally different that it might scare some people away. Everyone else will be left in awe over the crazy mind trip he's created.
Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a dancer in the New York City Ballet Company who’s hoping to be featured more in the upcoming season. Though she’s dedicated to her craft, it’s come at the cost of any trace of a normal life – she still lives with her overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) and sleeps in a bedroom fit for an eight-year-old girl. It’s the main reason why the company’s artistic director (Vincent Cassel) is so hesitant to cast her as the lead in their upcoming production of “Swan Lake,” because while she’s perfect for the part of the beautiful yet fragile White Swan, she’s too immature to fully embrace the seductive qualities of her evil twin, the Black Swan. But when Nina convinces him to give her a chance after the company’s star dancer (Winona Ryder) is kicked to the curb, she’s overwhelmed by the mounting pressure and becomes paranoid that a free-spirited new recruit (Mila Kunis) is trying to steal the role from her.
Aronofsky has been known to hammer his audience over the head with symbolism, and “Black Swan” is certainly no exception. But apart from all the blatant black and white / good vs. evil contrasts that appear throughout the movie, the one that really stands out is how such a raw and visceral story can take place in such a controlled world of beauty like ballet. It’s this idea that really drives the film, and Natalie Portman’s convincing performance as the tightly-wound ballerina helps sell it. Unlike Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” however, there’s not an awful lot of depth to Nina, so it’s hard to become completely invested in her character. Mila Kunis is the real surprise, nearly stealing the whole movie with only a handful of scenes, while Barbara Hershey (doing her best “Mommie Dearest” impression) and Winona Ryder are equally effective in limited roles.
Where the movie falters is in the depiction of Nina’s escalating madness. Before she’s even cast in the role of the Swan Queen, strange marks start appearing on her back (supposedly due to unconscious scratching, although this is never really expanded upon) and she's haunted by evil visions of herself everywhere she goes. Aronofsky does well to blur the line between what’s real and what’s in Nina's head, creating an ominous atmosphere where you're not sure what to believe, but he undermines the gravity of the situation by resorting to shocking body horror that often borders on camp.
To say any more would ruin the fun of experiencing the Cronenberg-like nightmare that he’s cooked up, even if it feels too much like a midnight movie for the art-house crowd as a result. The film still looks great, the acting is top-notch, and when Aronofsky is channeling his inner Polanski, it’s impossible to look away, but "Black Swan" is almost too outlandish at times. It makes for an enjoyable film, but not necessarily a great one.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Fox would like you to believe that the Blu-ray release of “Black Swan” is jam-packed with bonus material, and while that’s technically true, a lot of the extras are mostly just window dressing, including several short interviews with Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky that would have been time better spent recording a proper audio commentary. There are also interviews with some of the supporting cast (Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder and Barbara Hersey) about their respective roles, as well as a trio of mini-featurettes on the film’s ballet sequences, production design and costumes. But the real highlight is the 49-minute making-of featurette, “Metamorphosis,” which delivers an incredibly in-depth look at the production process, including everything from location shooting in New York City to creating the digital and make-up effects in the film.