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After years of working in the New York City Ballet, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is chosen by director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) as the lead for his latest rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She will need to play the White Swan, a creature of graceful beauty, and the Black Swan, a dark, aggressive sexual predator. Nina has no problem portraying the White Swan, but the Black Swan continues to elude her, much to the chagrin of Leroy. Meanwhile, a new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the troop, and her presence threatens Nina’s ascent. Disturbed by her need for perfection, her fear of Lily, and her overbearing ex-ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina’s psychological state fractures, and she finds herself haunted by herself.

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All is well in the universe. Darren Aronofsky continues his reign as one of America’s most incendiary and consistent working directors. And American audiences are now forgiven for ignoring the director’s most personal work to date, The Fountain, by making a challenging, unconventional films of 2010 a box office hit (only a year after something as uncompromisingly mainstream as Avatar mopped the floor with the competition). Black Swan probably wasn’t the best film of the year (I don’t actually have a pick myself), but it took huge chances with themes, visuals, subtext, and came out the other side an original, frightening, and at times deeply moving theatrical experience. Aronofsky’s trademarks permeate throughout the film, as if all of his previous work has built to this moment. Visual trademarks like obsessive, close-up studies of tedious mechanics (ala Requiem for a Dream), subjective POVs, and cinema verite camera work (ala The Wrestler) define most of the film’s look, though the hyperactive editing techniques of Requiem for a Dream and Pi have continued to lie dormant in the post- Fountain waste basket. The director’s thematic trademarks are perhaps more interesting, and telling, including the melancholy attached to family and love, and the emotional darkness attached to sex (however this particular virginal character reflects a particularly subjective fear of sex).

Though the film is almost exceedingly and emphatically Aronofsky’s, it also smells a lot like the director’s best homage to three of horror’s finest silver age masters – Dario Argento, Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg. The setting and several plot elements remind me of Argento’s ballet nightmare Suspiria, and his ode du Verdi Opera (the understudy elements, and the older diva’s car accident specifically). The hallucinatory and claustrophobic aspects evoke Polanski’s best work, especially Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, with a tinge of The Tennant. The body horror elements, though not a literal part of the reality of Black Swan, along with the metamorphosis both recall Cronenberg’s Fly remake, while some of the psychological motifs recall the director’s more modern work, like Spider and A History of Violence. On many levels Black Swan is more of a straight up horror movie than a psychological thriller, and like Aronofsky’s last psychological thriller it’s actually more frightening than most movies toted as ‘horror’. Occasionally the balance shifts a little too far into the spooky (the talking paintings was more than a little silly), but I personally found myself jumping out of my chair a few times, which is more than I can say for any movie since…uh…I actually can’t remember the last time that happened.

 Black Swan
(Another film consistently compared to Black Swan is Satoshi Kon’s (RIP) Perfect Blue, which I haven’t seen, but has been on my watch list for some time now due to comparisons to Argento’s Gialli flicks. I might update this review if I manage to finally see the movie in the near future.)

Black Swan is an unusually literal movie, even if it keeps the most obvious stuff just below the meta-text. Firstly, the screenplay is a relatively literal interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, just set in a modern setting. There is a literalizing of the ballet’s sexual and emotional subtexts as well, and Aronofsky constructs and builds his film like an orchestral movement (another one of his enduring trademarks). All this leads some viewers to criticize the film for being too simplistic, and even as a fan I can admit there’s something adolescent about the story (I admit I rolled my eyes when Nina quite literally throws away childish things). The angst is plenty palpable, but the effect is a little childish. On the other hand, the ballet world is presented as an immature, high school like place where young women scratch at each other’s fragile self esteems in an attempt to tear down egos. Arguably the adolescent melodrama fits the project perfectly, and despite the stark realism of Aronofsky’s chosen look, it’s pretty clear we’re dealing with operatic levels of drama here. Occasionally the film is a little too bleak for its own good, but I have to commend Aronofsky for being so unapologetically bold with his tone. It’s funny to watch the film with an audience, because the few genuine bits of comedy elicit disproportional laughs due to an oppressive need for release from the tension.

 Black Swan
Much has been said about all the performances in the film, and I’m compelled to agree with the general consensus. I admit a large part of me was rooting for Jennifer Lawrence during this year’s Oscar broadcast, but even my most contrarian instincts knew that Natalie Portman had earned the best actress statuette. Portman’s Black Swan performance is one that will define the actress for years to come, even if she decides to keep making dumbbell mainstream fodder for the rest of her career. The performance successfully covers a huge swath of emotions, many of which are forced to bubble just beneath the surface, and Portman effectively portrays Nina’s dueling personalities without over-simplifying things with physical gimmicks. I find it hard to believe the character was even half as compelling on the page, and though I generally trust Aronofsky’s work with actors, I assume a lesser performance would’ve tanked the whole film (she also did the Academy’s favourite thing, and lost a bunch of weight). Mila Kunis’ performance is almost more satisfying, though, after years of watching the undeniably talented actress struggling to shed her That ‘70s Show persona. Kunis has to play her role from two angles, and she has to act both parts convincingly without giving anything away to a first time audience. On the other hand is Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother Erica. Hershey’s performance seems to be proof that Portman and Kunis’ characters weren’t necessarily present on the page. Erica seems to only exist to explain Nina’s condition, which is unneeded, and Hershey turns her into a flat rendition of Piper Laurie in Carrie. The performance is specifically disappointing because it’s so easy to compare it to Ellen Burstyn’s Oscar-robbed nod in Requiem for a Dream.

 Black Swan

Video


On a big screen Black Swan is a little overwhelming. The handheld camera work is constantly at odds with the tight composition and excessive close-ups, but it’s also clear that this is an intended effect, creating an almost unbearable sense of claustrophobia. On a smaller screen the effect is still intense, but the shaking image isn’t as nauseating, and in my opinion a more ideal way to watch the film. However, the film is so gritty looking I can’t exactly say that 1080p is a viewing requirement. Shot on Super 16mm film, there isn’t a whole lot of room for super sharp details, and despite the excess of digital special effects, it doesn’t look like the original negatives underwent any major post production digital tinkering or colour grading. The bulk of the film is dimly lit, and the natural pallet is mostly defined by muddied blacks and whites. Flesh tones are warm, and there are a few poppy greens and reds throughout the print, but for the most part one could turn off the television set’s colour and experience roughly the same movie, except for the psychedelic dance club sequence, and parts of the final ballet, both of which feature some incredibly vibrant lighting gels. Grain is heavy throughout, and details are often fuzzy, but these ‘problems’ are presented rather consistently, and aren’t augmented with many artefacts like haloes or compression noise.

 Black Swan

Audio


Since it’s based largely around Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Black Swan is mostly aurally defined by music, but there’s also a lot of focus on hyper realistic sound effects, and the manner in which these sounds interact from scene to scene. A prime example is when the revolting sound of a pervert on the train making smacking noises at Nina (played by Requiem for a Dream author Hubert Selby Jr.) morphs into the sound of a flicking lighter. The abstract, ‘did I really just hear what I think I heard’ moments are among the more impressive in recent memory. There’s a whole lot of ‘hidden’ sound design, including a lot of directionally influenced bird sounds signifying Nina’s transformation. Probably the film’s most intense aural moment is the dance club scene, which features throbbing techno music that dissipates into shuttering stereo effects, and surround channel voices. The climactic ballet show is another high mark, including both subtle and aggressive effects work (those flapping wing sounds are quite intense), dynamic musical score, and an effectively immersive series of swirling directional effects.

 Black Swan

Extras


I find that Darren Aronofsky’s DVDs and Blu-rays tend to disappoint in terms of extras. There’s always something to whet the appetite, but rarely is there much meat on the bone. This disc bucks the trend for the most part, beginning with ‘ Black Swan Metamorphosis’ (49:00, HD), a three chapter look into the filmmaking process. The featurette mixes raw set footage with on-set discussion, and off-set interviews, which gives the audience a glance behind the process with the added value of a narrative. Subject matter covers conceptualization, scripting, production design, cinematography, choreography, acting, stunts, and the final chapter covers all the effects, from the subtle CG and sound design, to the icky make-up effects. It’s interesting to see the locations in digital HD rather than Super 16mm. Everything is much more colourful, and I’m left unconvinced that grainy was the way to go. It’s also interesting to note that Portman herself scrolled ‘whore’ on the bathroom mirror, which might give semi-accidental insight into the character.

The briefer featurettes, which should probably feature a ‘play all’ option, start with ‘Ballet’ (2:30, HD), a basic EPK clearly intended as a sales piece. ‘Production Design’ (3:50, HD) quickly delves beyond the making-of documentary’s design discussion, pertaining mostly to the stage set and colour choices. ‘Costume Design’ (3:40, HD) is more of the same, and also a good addition to the longer documentary’s information. Next are profiles for Portman (3:20, HD) and Aronofsky (which features an interesting comparison between Black Swan and The Wrestler, 2:50, HD), followed by ‘Preparing for the Role’ (3:50, HD), ‘Dancing with the Camera’ (1:30, HD, both of which feature Aronofsky interviewing Portman. The extras are wrapped up with ‘Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character’ with Portman (6:00, SD), Winona Ryder (2:20, SD), Barbara Hershey (3:40, SD) and Vincent Cassel (4:40, SD), ‘Fox Movie Channel Presents: Direct Effect with Darren Aronofsky’ (6:20, SD), and trailers.

 Black Swan

Overall


Black Swan is a brilliantly effective film, and one that should be seen at least twice to fully appreciate the story from alternate points of view. It’s not a huge twist movie like Fight Club, but looking at the narrative from Thomas and Lily’s points of view is an additionally interesting experience. The film isn’t nearly as frightening on additional viewings, but I was surprised at how swiftly the film rushed by the second time around, and the entire final act continues to inspire goose bumps. The intended look is so rough a Blu-ray viewing isn’t a huge upgrade over a standard SD viewing, but the uncompressed DTS-HD audio is more impressive than expected, and the extras are more substantial than any of Aronofsky’s previous releases. I’m assuming everyone reading this has already seen Cronenberg’s The Fly, and highly recommend Black Swan fans that perhaps haven’t delved too far into the horror genre yet (I’m thinking younger readers here) check out Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Opera (aka: Terror at the Opera), Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and Polanski’s Repulsion (the last two of which are available on gorgeous Criterion Blu-rays).

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Larger captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps.


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