Last Friday I took my fiancé to see Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Despite having read positive reviews and hearing that it was a modern masterpiece, I still found myself having doubts (I mean, it’s not often that something so hyped ever lives up to it right?). But low and behold, I can honestly say that I haven’t been blown away by a more fantastic piece of cinema in a long time.
Aronofsky’s latest offering sees Nina (Natalie Portman), a dedicated and determined ballet dancer win the lead role in a new version of “Swan Lake”. Her demeanour and dance style make her perfect for the role of the delicate white swan, but she must also dance the role of the black swan, the bewitching daughter of an evil magician. With her overbearing mother causing problems at home and her escalating paranoia surrounding friendship with a dancer new to the company, Nina starts to slowly lose her mind as she becomes more and more like the tantalising and seductive black swan…
With an inspired narrative, beautiful choreography, exquisite cinematography and visual effects, exhilarating editing and breathtaking direction, here are 10 reasons why I feel Black Swan is worthy of the Best Picture gong at this year’s Oscars.
(Apologies, there are some spoilers ahead)…
10. HERSHEY’S TYRANT
I’ve never bothered to watch Beaches (1988) in it’s entirety and in all honesty have very little desire to do so. The little bit that I have seen was less than memorable – including the irritating Barbara Hershey. However, in Black Swan she impressed me with an unforgettable performance portraying Nina’s overbearing mother as a tyrant who is as equally unhinged as her daughter. As former ballerina Erica, Hershey’s performance suggests that it is her who has pushed Nina to the brink of breakdown with her incessant pushing for her daughter to make prima ballerina within her company.
Hershey’s best scene comes when she brings a cake home to celebrate Nina’s success at becoming the lead in Swan Lake. The actress effectively hints at Erica’s own psychological instability as she instantly flips from being the essence of a mother’s pride and joy to that of a disgruntled and dangerous monster, when Nina states that she can’t eat the cake. The embodiment of an assertive stagemom, Hershey’s Erica is grotesque and vile, whilst concealing these horrible traits with a false impression of caring about her daughter.
09. A COMPLEX BUT ENGAGING NARRATIVE
I’ll be honest; I quite often find that a convoluted and over-complex narrative makes for a boring film. However, here despite the often-indefinable aspects of the narrative the film continues to be engaging and compelling. I enjoy psychological thrillers at the best of times, but generally those that include an explanation and neatly tie up any loose ends by the time the end credits role. Black Swan doesn’t do this and ends leaving audiences asking many a question (in fact, my fiancé left with a perplexed expression on her face and one question; which character was crazy?!). By failing to clarify every detail, Black Swan proves even more successful and makes a second viewing to see what you might have missed seem essential.
The complexity of the narrative and the many layers that permeate throughout make the film compulsive viewing and it is this that remains with you after the cinema lights come up, rather than the confusion it may have instilled. I always think that the mark of a great film is its ability to generate discussion and debate – Black Swan certainly does this. What could scream Best Picture winner more than this?
08. SUBTLE, BUT IMPRESSIVE SPECIAL EFFECTS
Films overloaded with special (digital) effects have dominated the box office ever since improvements in technology have encouraged filmmakers to adopt them. Recent years have also seen films reliant on these techniques repeatedly appear in the Best Picture Oscar category (so far, Avatar last year being the height of this). Whilst CGI special effects have made cinema that much more realistic and subsequently more thrilling, they do not always make for an accomplished film.
What sets Black Swan apart from such cinema is that whilst it embodies special effects work, it generally does so in a subtle way. There are some obvious moments where it is used to shock – most notably when Nina ‘witnesses’ former prima ballerina Beth Macintyre repeatedly stab herself in the face with a nail file – but these moments are exceptions within the narrative. Visual effects are generally used to display Nina’s burgeoning psychosis, as evidenced in the scene when her reflection turns to face her in the mirror or the repeated but ever changing image of the scratch wound on her back.
The most notable use of special effects comes in the final scenes of the film when Nina dances the black swan routine on her opening night. As the routine comes to a climax Nina appears to sprout wings, the skin on her arms turning to feathers. The digital effects that turn Nina into the black swan display her internal transformation in a literal way and it becomes clear that she has finally shaken the shackles of the prim and proper white swan and become the seductive and dangerous black one. In Black Swan, special effects aren’t there for the sake of them or because the budget allowed for it – they truly reflect the narrative.
07. THE BLENDING OF GENRES
Whilst Black Swan is primarily a melodrama and psychological thriller, Aronofsky manages to effectively blend elements of other genres within Black Swan. Teamed with the other aspects of the filmmaking process, there are moments that play on horror conventions (most notably when Nina has the lights switched off on her whilst training), the musical (particularly the performance scenes) and neo noir styling (best evidenced in the opening dream scene). This merging of various genres and the relative approaches of these means that Black Swan has something that will appeal to most viewers’ tastes.
Black Swan can be read on many levels and different interpretations of its meaning are born out of these amalgamated genres and styles. A film that provokes as much interpretation as this is surely worthy or winning that coveted Best Picture award, right?
06. THE REFLECTIVE SOUNDTRACK
Having a well-loved, classical score as the main soundtrack to a film must be a daunting mission. On the one hand you run the risk of not doing the music justice, whilst simultaneously you risk looking uninspired and uncreative if you fail to make your mark with it. The musical team behind Black Swan have nothing to worry about! Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake meanders throughout the narrative and is used to great effect to mimic the action and emotion on screen. The composer’s music is fantastically edited and applied to scenes where the original emotion or mood is also represented on screen. Like a ballet performance, the soundtrack equally tells the story of Nina’s plight.
The most memorable scene where the soundtrack beautifully enhances the screen action comes when Nina has the studio lights switched off on her. The score comes to a crescendo as she sees (or does she?) someone dressed in Rothbart’s costume flash past the end of a dark corridor. This glimpse of someone flash across the screen made the entire audience jump during my viewing! This was partly due to the surprising nature of seeing such an eerie image, but it was that much more successful due to the perfect matching of the soundtrack.
05. KUNIS SMOULDERS
The fact that Mila Kunis was overlooked for a Best Supporting Actress gong is a crime in my eyes! Here she smoulders on screen bringing an intense sexiness that real life ballet dancers don’t often embody. A fantastic contrast to Portman’s Nina, the two performances admirably mimic the battle between the birds within Swan Lake’s narrative; the former embodying the White Swan and Kunis’s Lily the Black Swan.
Kunis also brings some welcome comic relief at times, as well as an air of menace. Lily is by far Kunis’s most accomplished role and she struts her stuff with confidence and flair. Proving her acting worth, Kunis brilliantly blurs the line between ally and foe in her performance and leaves viewers’ questioning whether Nina’s paranoia surrounding Lily is justified or not. Her ability as a dancer is also equal to that of Portman’s and her dance as the Black Swan is remarkable. Similarly expressive in her movements, the rivalry between Lily and Nina appears thoroughly justifiable, whilst the former’s actions suggest this is less easy to determine conclusively. The twisted friendship that forms between Nina and Lily showcases Kunis’s ability to adopt multiple personalities within a single character and it’s easy to question whether Lily is really all that sane herself.
04. ARONOFSKY’S VISION
Darren Aronofsky is a director who has made only a few films, but each have found fame due to his success at bringing a distinct vision to the screen. With Black Swan he effectively contrasts audiences’ perceptions of the glamour of dancing for a ballet company with the harsh realities of the profession. Whilst the psychological breakdown of a prima ballerina was previously (and brilliantly) portrayed in The Red Shoes (1948), Aronofsky contemporises this and displays it in a much more stylistically impressive way than Powell & Pressburger did. Aronofsky brilliantly shoots his scenes here, keeping his direction tight (primarily with his extensive use of close up shots) but swift, which effectively captures Nina’s ever-relinquishing state of mental health. With a mother in law who was a costume designer for the Royal Ballet, her confirmation that ballet dancers regularly lose their grip on reality due to the rigorous training and lack of food helps solidify the efficacy of Aronofsky’s vision and direction.
The director apparently kept real life friends Portman and Kunis away from each other during shooting – even going as far as subtly pitting them against each other at times – in order to heighten the tension between them in their performances.
03. WEISBLUM’S POWERFUL EDITING
Editing is probably one – if not the – most important technical element of filmmaking. Sergei Eisenstein, pioneer of Russian filmmaking, effectively demonstrated how editing can manipulate an audience’s reactions to the images they see on screen. However, editing also remains one of the least noticeable elements of the filmmaking process. Apart from in Black Swan, that is! I found myself being amazed by Andrew Weisblum’s spectacular editing and whilst the fluidity of his technique was flawless he helped me feel as if I was in the narrative (particularly in the ballet performances), which brought it to the foreground of my attention.
Having only eight productions under his belt (including Aronofsky’s previous hit, The Wrestler ) he has come into his own with Black Swan, forging a distinct and memorable style that brilliantly reflects the emotions of the narrative.
02. PORTMAN PERFORMS
I’ve never been that much of a fan of Natalie Portman – I’ve always thought that she’s not a terrible actress, but she’s just not all that great either. Black Swan proved me wrong however! All those critics who have claimed her portrayal of Nina to be the performance of her career couldn’t be more correct. Perhaps it’s evidence of her growth as an actress or the product of some excellent training? Or, it could simply be that she can play crazy exceptionally well!
The power of the actress’s performance comes from the fact that the film does not rely heavily upon dialogue-laden scenes; and Portman benefits from this. Those scenes that do require more conversation are less successful than the scenes that demand emotion to be expressed through facial expression. Portman proves that she can display a plethora of emotion – from tortured anguish, through irrational, paranoid fear to drunken exuberance and happiness – without having to move her lips. This teamed with her accomplished expression through dance grounds what could have been a ridiculous or histrionic performance firmly within the realms of reality.
01. THE FINAL DANCE
The climax of Black Swan intensely combines elements of suspense, awe and horror and is quite simply some of the most powerful cinema to hit screens in recent years. Aronofsky continues to keep his direction tight and combined with the layers of delusional sound within Nina’s mind (the mocking laughter in particular) and her unnerving hallucinations, plus the fast-paced but fluid editing, the sequence can be nothing but memorable.
The dance choreography is spectacular, as are the performances from the dance cast. Portman’s dancing (however much of it she did actually perform herself) is tragically expressive and thoroughly convincing that this one moment is a culmination of all Nina’s dreams and exhaustive training. Essentially, all of the previous entries in this list combine here to generate a thrilling climax that truly sets your heart racing.
I believe that Black Swan could win the Best Picture Oscar on this scene alone. It is an exquisite example of how powerful cinematic imagery can be when all involved pull together and create something beautiful. I left the cinema wishing I could attend the very next screening, but unfortunately it was sold out…and rightly so!
This article was first posted on January 29, 2011