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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: Black Swan

You wouldn’t know it from its Rotten Tomatoes rating, but Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Black Swan, was probably the most divisive film at Toronto. Perhaps it was because in the days leading up to the fest we kept hearing such different things about it: Some rumors said it was a callback to the visually compelling, non-linear structure of The Fountain, others said it evoked The Wrestler in the world of ballet.

How could so many people walk away from the same film feeling such completely opposite ways about it? Certainly, it was the film many of us at Toronto were most curious to see, and there’s no doubt it was one of the most talked about and debated among the critical set at the fest. Of the folks I talked to about it, I’d have to say maybe a third hated it outright, found it ludicrous and laughable, while the rest were blown away by the film’s visual style and riveted by the story. You’ll have to judge for yourself when you see it.

For me, Black Swan was a bold, brave, gorgeous, crazy yarn of a psychological thriller, one of the ballsiest, most intellectually ambitious films I’ve seen this year. Who besides Darren Aronofsky (and maybe Chris Nolan, Tim Burton and Tarsem) could get away with making a studio film this outrageous, this daring, this in-your-face, out-and-out insane, set in the world of professional dance, of all things?

The life of the professional ballerina — not unlike the broader artistic world of which it is a subset — is such a completely insular, obsessive world that those of us who are not a part of it can only barely grasp the kind of dedication it takes to achieve the level of a professional dancer as part of a “company,” much less the lofty heights of the prima ballerina. Yet Aronofsky doesn’t linger so much on the obsessiveness and eating disorders and demands of the world of dance, per se, so much as he explores the dark crevices of an artist’s mind, the obsession within that drives his young dancer to the brink of nightmarish, paranoid delusion, where everyone’s motives — even her own — are suspect and where everything may or may not be what it appears to be.

Black Swan is a dark fable of sorts centered on Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, in a powerhouse of a performance), a driven, perfectionist young ballerina whose life path has been orchestrated since before her birth by her domineering mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), who was herself once a ballerina of great promise before her pregnancy with Nina cut her career short. Erica sacrificed her own career on the altar of motherhood, and by the gods, her daughter is going to appreciate that sacrifice and step into her rightful place as heiress to the pointe shoes, no matter the cost.

Thus the heroine of our fable has led a sheltered life with a singular, laser-sharp focus: ballet, ballet, ballet. The apartment Nina and Erica share has a ballet barre and wall mirrors in the living room; her bedroom is a carefully preserved shrine to dependent little girlhood. Every aspect of Nina’s life is controlled and monitored by her protective mother; so carefully, so relentlessly and skillfully has Erica manipulated her daughter — perhaps even without realizing she’s doing so — that by the time we tiptoe curiously into Nina’s life, it’s hard to see where the mother’s ambition ends and the daughter’s begins.

Nina, when we meet her, is a model of complicity and focus. Her lines are lovely, her technique rigorously perfect. But she’s a dancing doll, a porcelain puppet. For all that she executes every choreographed move flawlessly, her dancing lacks the raw passion and sensuality, the earthy humanity, the visceral connection to music and story, that marks a truly great dancer.

But we soon glimpse that beneath Nina’s carefully controlled exterior, another side lies dormant. There is a darkness and obsession lurking within her that ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) senses when he’s deciding on the casting for the Swan Queen in a production of Swan Lake — a part that requires a dancer who can evoke both the controlled perfection and grace of the White Swan and the passion, sensuality and seduction of her evil twin/other half, the Black Swan.

Thomas, who is in his own way is as much a manipulative puppet master as Nina’s mother, seeks to draw out this other side of Nina, to force her to connect with the dormant sensuality and passion buried within her icy exterior. But competition for the coveted role lies in Nina’s path to greatness in the form of bad-girl Lily (Mila Kunis, also great here), a tattooed, laughing, passionate dancer who makes up for what she lacks in technique with a dancing style that is driven by unbridled emotion and connection to the music.

And Nina is shown a glimpse of her own ultimate fate, even if she should succeed in landing the part, in the callousness with which Thomas casts aside aging prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder, haunting and sad and tragic), once the toast of the ballet world, now being forced into retirement from the spotlight that she isn’t ready to accept.

As all these pieces connect around and through Nina, the story goes more and more askew. It feels, often, like being caught inside a kaleidoscope; just when you think you see the picture all the pretty pieces are making, something shifts and you’re not sure what you’re seeing at all.

Nina becomes more and more singularly focused on nailing the part, Thomas pushes and pushes to get her to search inside herself to find the sexual drive and raw passion he needs her to evoke on stage, her mother is a constant, nagging presence, desperate for her daughter to succeed where she did not, and Lily lurks in the shadows, mockingly ready to step into the spotlight when Nina fails.

Hallucinations, dreams, nightmares abound, and even the people closest to Nina, all of whom have dual personas tied into the story of Swan Lake, may not be what we think they are. Nothing is really as it seems in this story — or at least, we’re not entirely sure whether it is or isn’t. How much of what we see is delusion driven by Nina’s fragile, increasingly unstable mental state? Are Erica, Lily and Beth even real as we’re seeing them or are they all just reflections Nina sees, pieces of herself, now and in the future: the deeply buried, rebellious bad girl/Black Swan; the used-up, once great prima ballerina, toppled from her tower of success/Dying Swan; and the Mother/aged former ballerina/Queen desperate to pass the torch to the next little ballerina with dreams of greatness?

Aronofsky so skillfully weaves together this web of reality and fantasy that we, like Nina, are never quite sure what’s real and what’s not, and as he spins his tale around us, we feel more and more off-kilter, uncomfortable, edgy. And I don’t think Aronofsky wants us to know what’s real and what isn’t here; or rather, he wants us to wonder and ponder and argue and discuss and determine for ourselves what we think is really happening and what it all means.

In the end, then, its Aronofsky himself who proves himself to be the most masterful and manipulative of puppet masters. He shows us the world as seen from the perspective of an artist pushed to the brink of insanity, and it’s a terrible, terrifying, gorgeous, haunting, raw and evocative vision to behold, painted on an ever-changing, ever-moving canvas. Aronofsky doesn’t condescend to his audience, he expects us to be smart enough to keep up with where he’s going without the need for him to hold our hand and explain everything to us.

Black and white, good and evil, ambition and obsession, delusion and reality are all blended together in this crazy, weird, compelling film, and it’s masterful, inventive storytelling, whether you like the end result or not. We complain so often about Hollywood churning out the same boring action films, dull rom-coms and cookie-cutter thrillers, and here we have a director who repeatedly puts it all on the line to make a studio-financed film that’s actually unique and intellectually challenging and visually stunning.

Love Black Swan or hate it, but give Aronofsky the respect he deserves for being bold and ambitious enough to make exactly the films he wants to make, time and time again, even while working within the constraints of the studio system. He’s made a more imaginative and daring film here than most directors aiming for the level of “art” ever come close to achieving, and I, for one, applaud him for it. Bravo.

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8 Responses to “Review: Black Swan”

  1. Dan says:

    Don’t include Nolan in that list, please.

  2. Kim Voynar says:

    Dan, whyfore? INCEPTION was one of the most intricate, intelligent, bizarrely brilliant films of the year. A lot of “mainstream” directors wouldn’t make a film like that. And it’s one of the few films I would watch multiple times.

  3. Jeb says:

    That sounds like an interesting movie. Maybe I’ll take my gf to go see it. It’s not worth investing in if it’s not different enough to be entertaining.

  4. NickF says:

    I honestly can not wait to see this movie.

  5. ScottA says:

    I wouldn’t quite put myself in that hater third, but the film struck me as a bit obvious and heavy-handed in its direction. Solid performances by the dependable Portman and Cassel, melodramatic score by Cliff Mansell. Aronofsky never found a wound he didn’t looove to stick his camera into. Nothing that THE RED SHOES didn’t do heaps better…

  6. Bellabell says:

    I skipped school for the first time (age 15) to see “The Red Shoes,” and was not merely enchanted but moved forward in my emotional awareness of power of the arts.
    I didn’t expect to get another such boost from “The Black Swan,” but I did. It is the better film, and that’s saying a a lot. “The Red Shoes,” for all of its balletic wonders, is essentially a romance. “The Black Swan” is a richer psycho-drama with a much tighter focus.

  7. gerald.steinmetz says:

    Not ONE person involved(except perhaps Cassel) has any idea what ballet is trying to achieve.

  8. evey says:

    First of all, Scott, it’s CLINT Mansell, not “Cliff”. It’s important to get it right especially since he’s at least half of the finalized brilliance that is the finished product of a Daron Aronofsky film. That includes The Fountain, by the way.
    This review was way, way over written. The whole point of a review is to give a peak of incite into a film for people that have yet to see it.
    I’m not saying its not well written I just think its important to know when to stop.

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