Friday, February 4, 2011

Oscars: Black Swan (2010)

Few directors in Hollywood can rightfully claim to be ambitious (Kubrick, Nolan, Fincher, Tarantino and Spielberg to name some). Even fewer can boast of a more diverse and varied filmography as Darren Aronofsky. In five films, he has experimented wildly with themes and techniques. He is one of the few directors who employs visuals rather than dialogue to convey his ideas and themes. Thematically, he explored loneliness and emptiness in the context of drug addiction (Requiem for a Dream), birth, death and existentialism (The Fountain) and ageing, poverty and the desperate comfort of company (The Wrestler). Technically, he provided us with some of the most memorable and varied visuals of the last decade in two of the above films while in his last effort, he stripped it down to its bare essentials focussing instead, on the actors and their performances instead. His films always a feast for the eyes and the mind; though ultimately flawed. His latest work, Black Swan, however, is near perfect exquisite work of art. It is his finest, most provocative and intense work till date and may just be his masterpiece.

Lose Yourself. Get in touch with your wild side. These ideas get a frightful form in Black Swan. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina for a ballet company run by Thomas (Vincent Cassel). She is hardworking, sweet and innocent and lives with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershley), a former ballerina who gave up her career to raise Nina. The Company is preparing for its production of “Swan Lake”, a ballet about an innocent virginal Odette, the Swan Queen who can only become human on discovering true love. But when she does find her prince, he is seduced by her evil twin Odile, the Black Swan and only in death does Odette find freedom. Nina lands the lead role of Odette/Odile replacing the former star (Winona Ryder). But while she is perfect as Odette, she is under a lot of pressure to bring out her dark, lusting side as Odile on stage. The quest for perfection, the pressure from her mother and the director and the arrival of competition (Mila Kunis) triggers dormant, dark emotions inside Nina that test her sanity and threaten to destroy her.

In terms of technique, the film is a very interesting mix of Requiem… and The Wrestler. Aronofsky provides a visceral film about a tragic central character while employing dazzling, dizzying and unforgettable visuals. The depiction of Nina, as she gradually loses control, is simultaneously intimate, awe-inspiring and terrifying. Thankfully, Aronofsky exercises remarkable restraint throughout and protects the film from being hammy or over the top, which it could so easily have been. The contrasts, between Odette and Odile, the restrained and the wild, the ugly and the beautiful, are beautifully symbolised in the costumes and the production design throughout the film. The editing is stunning and the abrupt scene transitions serve the narrative perfectly. The blurring of lines between the real, the hallucination and the dream is deftly achieved without disrupting the smooth narrative. Every scene, including the conclusion, is open to interpretation and intellectual heavy lifting has rarely been a more rewarding experience. The music of Clint Mansell adds to the atmosphere extremely well. Basically, the meaning and brilliance of this film is in its details.

Coming to the performances, Natalie Portman is a frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar this year, and for good reason. She plays Aronofsky’s game of toeing the line between flamboyance and restraint effortlessly capturing Nina’s conflicted emotions with remarkable finesse. Her portrayal of Nina, as she, like the proverbial Swan Queen, desperately battles her darker self, is a formidable mix of innocence, beauty, self-loathing and dementia. Her performance is as nuanced as it is bold and uninhibited, in a way few mainstream actors would ever dare. This is the performance of a lifetime and must be seen to be believed.

Mila Kunis is great as Nina’s nemesis who sets the screen aflame with her reckless, boundless sensuality which Nina so sorely lacks. Vincent Cassel is marvelous as the charming, seductive and manipulative director. But in the supporting acts, its Barbara Hershley you remember the most who is creepy and terrifying as the overbearing, difficult mother who wants nothing more than seeing her child on top, no matter what the consequences.

Ultimately, for all its theatricality and mesmerising visuals, the true horror of Black Swan lies in its themes, which are immediately identifiable and relatable; several people deal with overbearing controlling parents, the burning desire to win, to be on top, to be perfect, to lose control and be a little irresponsible. Nina is simply a larger than life embodiment of these ideas and emotions. And what a terrible beauty she is!

Rating: 4/5.


  1. Beg to differ on a small point.
    In my opinion, Nina's mother - suffocatingly overbearing, as she was - didn't intend to see her child on top, "no matter what the consequences". She was constantly worried about Nina's inability to deal with her stressful role, and towards the end, even locked her up to prevent her from making it to the first staging of the production.

  2. That's when she saw the consequences and the impact the role was having on her. However, she is seen throughout the movie to be the person pushing her to pursue the role and the perfection in the first place. She is oblivious to the impact it is having on her till its too late.

  3. Black Swan is probably Arnofsky's finest yet. Although unlike Nolan, his work is pretty divisive (you either hate it, or love it), but not since Kubrick has a director been blessed with such visual prowess. 2010 was a brilliant year for films wasn't it?! The Social Network (Citizen Kane for this generation), The Kings Speech, Inception, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3 :D

  4. The Jew is going to have to disagree with the Walrus and agree with Igirit. I didn't see the mother as being the, child on top "no matter the consequences". If you take the example of not wanting her to go out, it wasn't so much she was concerned of the effect it would have on her role in the performance, it was just because she wanted to control her daughters life. And it wasn't only in the end that she was seeing the impact, she comments when she sees the scratches at one point that 'its the stress of that damn ballet'. I think she was simply over-controlling and suffocating, but was there perhaps a reason for it? I for the impression that maybe Nina had issues earlier in life which may have led to her mother to become such a way...or maybe Nina's became that way from an overbearing mother. We will never know.