Film review - Black Swan (2010)

Director Darren Aronofsky's fifth feature, "Black Swan," is set in the world of a New York City ballet company. Natalie Portman stars as Nina, an up-and-coming ballet dancer struggling to master her first leading role in Swan Lake. Like Aronofsky's previous film The Wrestler, this is about sacrificing everything for your 'art', whatever the price.

On my first viewing, when the film came out, I was sceptical of Black Swan, which seemed overrated and hollow. I have since rewatched and read more about it, and even listened to a lecture on the film. This is my revised opinion. I still don’t believe it’s a great film, instead I would call it a good film.

Ballerina Nina Sayers has the talent to take the lead in a new production of Swan Lake, but does she have the passion? A story about putting your body at risk to entertain an audience.

Nina lives with her obsessively hovering mother (Barbara Hershey), who used to be a ballerina herself. She loves her daughter very much, but attends to Nina's career with a suffocating attention to detail. The mother is over-protective, projecting her own lost ambitions onto Nina. Is she living through her daughter? Or jealous of her? We never know.

Even though her mother is probably encouraging her to follow in her footsteps, it still must be comforting to lose yourself in a role as Nina does, as Nina seems not to know who she is. Perhaps she is trying to find out who she wants to be.

The Mila Kunis character, Lily, pictured above on left, is the opposite of Nina, relaxed, at ease with her surroundings, promiscuous, she is everything that Nina is not. Nina is still a child, and the film is kind of her belated teenage rebellion.

In a lecture by a psychologist I attended following a screening, it was interesting to hear her take on what was wrong with Nina, her interpretation was Nina is suffering a psychosis. The physical suffering may be a way of dealing with the mental pain, to channel her thoughts towards the body.
Her interpretation of Winona Ryder’s character was that she deliberately walks in front of a car, perhaps to justify to herself she won’t be a dancer anymore in the ballet.

On talk show Charlie Rose, Natalie Portman talked about why she wanted to make the film, the director is one reason, and also that she always wanted to do a dance film, having danced when she was younger, and movement for her is such a cinematic expression. To convey through image, movement and sound what can't be put into words. Portman sees Nina as a child who is becoming a woman. A world where they want to keep them as little girls, not to have breasts or hips. They call them girls, not women or dancers. They ask these dancers to conform to certain standards. For a very female art there is a male domination of it.
It’s about finding pleasure for herself, rather than pleasing other people, that allows her transformation to a woman, and allows her to kill the little girl.

Darren Aronofsky in the same interview comments on the Vincent Cassel character, a teacher who uses his sexuality to manipulate the girls, but justifies his behaviour by calling it art.

Not that Poppy in Happy-go-lucky (2008) in any way resembles Natalie Portman's character Nina, though one similar trait strikes me, the ability to will yourself into certain behaviour, be it happy, or in Nina's case, a perfect dancer.
I think your true self will eventually reveal itself if you try and behave unlike your natural self for an extended amount of time. A lot of effort and stressful moments to be someone you are not. The question is, if you decide to be different, do you want to lose yourself, can you become who you want to be? I don't think Nina could cope with it all. I guess the best performers manage to pull off being another person (albeit briefly during production, but we don't see the hidden anxiety of acting normally, only the finished movie).
Nina can't escape from who she is, I think maybe this is one of the messages of Black Swan, that performing can cause anxiety and stress.
As Sati writes at cinematic corner: "We travel down the rabbit hole of insanity along with Nina, we are scared, happy and exhilarated when she is."

As Roger Ebert writes in his review:
"The tragedy of Nina, and of many young performers and athletes, is that perfection in one area of life has led to sacrifices in many of the others. At a young age, everything becomes focused on pleasing someone (a parent, a coach, a partner), and somehow it gets wired in that the person can never be pleased. One becomes perfect in every area except for life itself."

If I had to find a flaw with the film, it’s that people don't seem to notice at the ballet school that Nina is unwell, and this to me is unrealistic.
Not as memorable and original for me as Darren Aronofsky's masterpiece Requiem for a dream (2000), which I will look at next week.
I agree with pgtipsonfilms, who writes: "Whilst Requiem is harrowingly realistic, Black Swan becomes a little farcical towards the end. This is a pity for cast and director alike. (…)it fails to detail the positive aspects of the industry. Instead, the movie focuses upon many of the negative stereotypes, such as eating disorders and overbearing parents."

NS dance critic's verdict of Black Swan also found faults with the film: “In fact, Mila Kunis in the bad-girl role doesn't have to (dance); she just has to look toned and hot. Natalie Portman does pretty well as the lead, with her elongated neck and etiolated look, but any ballet-goer would notice that the arch of the spine, hold of the arms and articulation of the hip are not those of a professional dancer. These arguments over how representative or realistic the film is are, I think, of limited interest.
In any case, they have short answers: the negative stereotypes are indeed hyperbolic and unrepresentative, but contain germs of truth, and the actors need only convince as dancers within the terms of the film, which they do. More interesting to me is a different perspective--Black Swan appears to be part of a long film tradition in which ballet is associated with madness, sickness, torture, the paranormal and death, and where stock characters recur: the monstrous maestro, the evil twin or jealous rival, the dying maiden.”

Director Darren Aronofsky:
“I just thought it was an interesting contrast to take something as beautiful as ballet and then add horror to it. But then I realized it wasn't that much different than actual ballets. And if you look at the great stories of the ballet - Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet -- they're tragic, they're gothic, they're, you know, have horrific elements.”
And Aronofsky says that thrill may just motivate moviegoers who've never seen a ballet performance in their lives to check out the real thing.

I think what held me back from truly falling in love with the film is that ballet at the end of the day is not really my cup of tea. You don't have to know anything about ballet, to find the film interesting. Black Swan is well worth watching, a good character study. The narrator not being herself means things are not what they seem.

I shouldn’t forget to mention the fantastic, haunting music by composer Clint Mansell, and great performances by all the actors. Natalie Portman won a Golden Globe and Oscar for her portrayal of Nina.

My rating is 7.6

Was my review useful? Have you seen Blak Swan? Let me know what you think about the film, positive or negative



charlierose interviews Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky

npr, interview

Film review, Roger Ebert

Film review, cinematiccorner

Film review, pgtipsonfilms

Bird watch: the NS dance critic's verdict on Black Swan / Sanjoy Roy / New Statesman (Jan. 24, 2011)


  1. Great insight on many source, Chris. Reading Portman's reasons to play Nina, she does have everything set in her mind and have depth on doing her work.
    Sometimes some movies felt overrated and you feel like you 'have' to love it too. Happens to me too at times.
    You said Nina's ballet school is unwell, I think it's true. I guess some schools are very competitive and it makes the people in it uncomfortable, that includes Nina who are more sensitive than others. I guess she also got influenced by the competition around her. But it's true that she doesn't know herself much (probably because her mother always treated her like a little girl).

  2. I really liked your review, thanks so much!
    I had a lot of problems with this film as well, though I did like Natalie Portman. I hated the set color movements from white to black - that was just stupid and labored a tired point by Aronofsky. In a lot of ways this film is really immature. I like the subject matter, but everything you say is accurate, in that the audience is distracted away from what should be the primary point of the film, and that is the discussion of the affect of the creation of art on the psyche. It is supposed to be a sister film to The Wrestler, but the message gets lost in all the fluff. I also agree with the Mila Kunis character. Thanks again for a great review.

  3. Nice review. The psychological twists are what made me like this film, with the whole idea of perfection, which is also a version of supposedly perfect "femininity" and artistry as self-sacrifice. I suspect that the manipulations are probably pretty accurate to what really happens!

  4. That's an interesting psychological take on Winona Ryder's character. I just saw that accident and her character's attitude towards Nina as a straight up homage to Dario Argento's Opera. Actually this film as a whole was a clumsy mixmash of the director's influences. I still found it impressive to look at, but it didn't stick with me as much as I expected.

  5. Good review and insightful remarks Chris. I also wasn't quite as enamored with this film as most of the blogosphere although subsequent viewings somewhat tampered down my problems with it. One of the recurring line in the film is how Nina is so technically perfect but has little connection with her material, it's kind of ironic to me because that's how I felt with Aronofsky's movie.

  6. I thought this film was going to be terrible and it turned out to be not half bad. That being said I wish Kunis and Portman had more scenes where they were making out. Nice intelligent review of the film in juxtaposition to my crude comments.

  7. You make very interesting observations about the film and I like the fact that you showed us excerpts from other reviewers to make your point across. There certainly are very good film critics out there that are worth following and reading, even if we don't necessarily agree with their views on a film.

    As for Black Swan, my main problem with it was not the stereotypes or the overly tragic view it has of ballet. I feel these are simply stylistic and conceptual decisions that a director must take. I think we must take it for what it is, a story about a troubled young woman in a very difficult environment. I do not feel the film can be judged based on its realism, I don't think it was meant to be an expose on the art form, but simply a story that may or may not be taken as the norm in the ballet world.
    Having said that, I feel "Black Swan" though stylistically beautiful and punctuated by excellent performances, especially that of Natalie Portman, was a bit predictable and overly tragic, certainly not realistic. I do agree with you in saying that it seems a bit far-fetched for everyone not to notice the lead's problems even though they were rather obvious, as it becomes also obvious that everything will end very badly for Nina.

    Requiem is definitely the better film.

    Great read.

    BTW. I have been having issues when posting on your blog, hence why I haven't been able to do it for a while. It always seems to redirect to the comment page, not allowing me to post the comment I just made. I had to change to Internet Explorer just so that it allowed me to do anything.

  8. Wonderful revview and thanks so much for linking me! I love that interpretation of Winona Ryder's character, I never thought of that.

  9. I enjoyed this a lot more than you did. It isn't as re-watchable as I would've liked, but the lasting impression was strong. I've re-watched Social Network a lot more often even though I remember liking Black Swan more. Hopefully Aronofsky will get a big budget for his Noah adaption after the success of Black Swan.

  10. Great review, Chris. I am glad you enjoyed this more the second time around. I agree that it really is a fascinating character study, which Aronofsky does oh so well. And that score by Clint Mansell is phenomenal. I hope those two continue to work together.

  11. @Andina: I know what you mean, at times I see a new film and wonder what all the fuss and praise was about. Occasionally you need the hype to die down before a film can be appreciated. I guess I'm allowed to change my mind ( : I didn't write about the competitive nature of the school in my review, I agree it's a factor in her behaviour, thanks for sharing your opinion.

    @Lisa Thatcher: I agree that the audience is distracted away from what should be the primary point of the film, Aronofsky wants to articulate the strain of the artistic process, but as you point out doesn’t go very far beneath the surface. Perhaps we are expecting too much, since it's a mainstream production for the masses, it’s after all not a thesis. We never get a clear sense of why Nina desires the role so ardently in the first place, maybe that is what is missing. If I knew why she wanted the role so badly, I think I could emphasize even more with Nina's quest.

    @NeverTooEarlyMP: I don't know if there are so many psychological twists, I don't see them, as there is not really any question that she's crazy. She's insane for a while, and then insane later too. What do I know, maybe what you see as a “twist” is different than I do? But I agree that it's a discussion of perfection on a tacit, non-verbal level. How much are you willing to sacrifice of your "normal life", for the sake of your "art", and having the self-awareness to understand when you have gone over the line of doing harm to yourself. Health and sanity come first. Thanks for sharing your opinions ( :

    @Bonjour Tristesse: Haven't seen Dario Argento's Opera, but I'm sure would add something if I had! Requiem for a dream, which I'll review in a few days, now that sticks with you for a long time.

    @Castor: Thanks for the praise. Interesting point you make that the director (like Nina) is so technically perfect but has little connection with the material. Aronofsky does appear to be more skilful and innovative technically when directing, while the story of a single-minded pursuit of a seemingly unattainable goal is kind of a rehash each time. Would be good to see Aronofsky completely change direction in future, as I feel he needs a fresh challenge.

    @3guys1movie: This thread is indeed way too serious, so glad for a little humor to lighten it up ( :

    @niels85: Thanks, yes that’s my uni days putting those opinion pieces side by side!...Tricky to say if it's reality in Black Swan, because Nina is losing her mind. As with Requiem for a dream, it's her point-of-view. The madness in Requiem was more realistic for me, because the old woman was alone in her apartment.
    I’m more interested in insights or interpretations, than writing eloquent prose. There has to be a reason for reading...hopefully my reviews provide a little food for thought.
    Sorry to hear you couldn't comment, nobody else has mentioned having trouble. I had problems with firefox and blogspot, messed with the lettering size. I always post with internet explorer now.

    @Sati: Glad you enjoyed my review, and you found an interpretation you hadn't heard before!

    @Max: The visuals from Black Swan are what stayed with me more than anything. Didn't hear about the Noah adaptation, thanks for the info. I read Human Nature (2013) a sci-fi film with George Clooney, is in the works, we'll see what happens!

    @Eric: Thanks! Yes Black Swan grew on me, no doubt. Hope Clint Mansell keeps working too, he's a talented composer for film. I also really like the work he did for Duncan Jones on the Moon soundtrack, made Moon a much more haunting experience!

  12. I thought this film was terrific. Haunting, immersive and backed up by great performances. Portman was a revelation!

    I thought the film was authentic and beautifully realised. I think you quote someone who feels the film plays on stereotypes such as overbearing parents but that is a common truth within this industry. Most ballet dancers start when they are children and can only get to the top of the game by going to very expensive dance schools funded by their suitably and unsurprisingly "overbearing" parents who are desperate to see their loved one "make" it. And also to see some payback for their investment.

    I think Aronofsky's depiction of this - in a hauntingly, surreal style - is both very affecting and unique.

  13. @Dan: Yes, terrific performances! I would agree that stereotypes such as overbearing parents or dysfunctional childhoods do feature quite often in movie scripts, but I guess they do in life as well. I suppose you are right that it's common for ballet dancers to have overbearing and controlling parents. What is obviously healthy is to let the child decide once they are 18, if ballet (or whatever sport) is what they love, and want to continue with, and a lot indicates Nina not having that discussion, and a chance to bail-out. It's tricky, because you love your parents and all they have done, but they have to let you be your own person. I read Andre Agassi's autobiography, and he had plenty to say about his father being his childhood coach, and pushing Agassi into tennis, was an interesting read.

  14. Well, if you have to be told why you should like a movie, I don't think there's much hope to actually like it that much. (Sort of like when a joke has to be explained to someone - the explaining takes all the impact away.) Perhaps it's just me. I've re-watched a few films because I wondered if I missed something, but I've never ended up liking one of them afterwards.

    It's funny about Ryder's character's fate and some of the comments. I assumed from the beginning that it was on purpose, both to end her career, and to bring the attention back to her. Most failed suicide attempts were not really intended to succeed in the first place; they are just ways to get attention.

    I can see why Black Swan would not appeal to everyone, although I am a little surprised that it being about the ballet was cited here. I know nothing about ballet, other than it requires an almost insane level of dedication to succeed, so it seemed to fit right in with Aronofsky's constant theme of obsession in all his films.

    1. @Chip Lary: Maybe I'm a little different, in that added knowledge can make me appreciate a film more. I admire that you are kind of challenging my method of reviewing, not many have the guts to do so! After watching a film, I like to hear what the filmmakers intentions are, or other viewpoints (I realize a lot of people prefer to make up their own minds and don't won't to have a film explained). Once I have this info, its fun for me to watch the movie again.

      Interesting that you perceive Ryder's character as a failed suicide attempt not really intended to succeed in the first place, in order to call attention to herself.

      I suppose the lack of interest from my part in ballet is the same lack of interest anyone can have about a documentary about any particular issue. With that said, if I learn more about Swan lake etc, then that is how my interest might grow.

      Thanks for chipping in, Chip (I bet you've heard that pun before :D


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