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December 28, 2010

Movie Review: Black Swan

There are people in the world who are exceedingly good at what they do. Some strive for perfection in such a complete way that every other part of their life suffers for it. The devotion to any activity that requires near-absolute daily focus and attention must take a toll on a person, be it physical or mental. Black Swan devotes almost all of its attention to the mental repercussions on a ballet dancer, Nina Sayers, and it strives for perfection just as she does. It comes very close.

Darren Aronofsky is not a filmmaker who seems to be concerned with giving his films a "message", instead he focuses on painting a portrait of characters and scenarios, letting them run their natural course to an inevitable end of (mostly) tragedy. His films center on characters who are obsessed and fragile. Requiem for a Dream involved drug addicts who were obsessed with their hopes and dreams; drugs were there to derail the process of achieving them. The Fountain and The Wrestler both had men who refused to let the natural course of life keep them from attempting to control their future.

The Wrestler is a pretty apt comparison to Black Swan. Flip the the main character's gender from male to female and change their profession from wrestling to ballet and you pretty much have the gist of it. While Randy "The Ram" was struggling with the repercussions of choosing wrestling over personal relationships, Nina Sayers has no personal relationships with anyone at all. This is partly due to her focus on ballet but also because she's not mentally equipped to handle the basics of human interaction.

We get the impression that Nina has been sheltered from the outside world by her mother, a ballet dancer in her youth who gave it up to give birth to Nina, and she has no real way of breaking loose. Nina is smothered into a near catatonic emotional state because all she does is wake up, dance, go to sleep, repeat. In another movie she would be viewed as the ice queen antagonist, so distant from the other dancers as to give an air of distrust and menace.

Nina is given an opportunity to play the White Swan and the Black Swan in a production of Swan Lake by her dance instructor, Thomas. He demands that she let go of her need for perfection (which is how he knows she can portray White Swan) so that she can embody the Black Swan at the same time. This causes so much stress on Nina that her mind starts to fracture. Thomas pushes her because he knows she's capable of more but can't see her getting past her emotional barriers of repression.

This film is perfect for Darren Aronofsky's cinematic sensibilities and he uses them well. His camera seems to hound Nina wherever she goes, always following her, stalking her every movement, giving her no privacy even from the audience. Aronofsky buries us into her mental state so deeply that even we don't know what is real or delusion. When the end finally does come, we are given what has been inevitable and it is grand.

If you are a fan of Aronofsky as a filmmaker then you will most certainly enjoy Black Swan. You will also be acutely aware of what is going to happen and where the story is going. Aronofsky does not dabble with subtlety and has often repeated his themes and character types. These are not faults. If you have not seen his previous work then you are in for a emotional bloodbath. The movie does not pull punches in showing you the fractured mind of a perfectionist. I think that is what makes it a stunning film.


luis said...


btw, the top image isn't fully loading. not sure if it's just my IP right now or a damaged file.

thanks for the review Tom!

Tom Heistuman said...

I certainly loved it. My roommate saw it this afternoon and simply texted me with a "wow" when it was over.

Thanks, Luis!

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