Review: Black Swan

 

“I kill myself for you people every night!” so the unspoken cry of the stage actor, or in this case the professional Ballerina, goes. Darren Aronofsky continues his examination of the psyches of performers, started with The Wrester but comes at it from the opposite direction to his previous picture age- and experience-wise. Black Swan charts the anxieties and temptations of a young ballerina, Nina (Natalie Portman,) as she gets her shot at the big-time in a production of “Swan Lake.” Nina has just been picked by legendary Ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, oddly restrained) to replace his aging muse (Winona Ryder) and take the central dual role of the Swan Queen in his ‘visceral’ production of the most famous (or overdone) ballet. Nina is young enough that she is still living at home with her mother, amongst her pink stuffies and white laced bedspreads. She is a perfectionist, but not yet an artist, naïve and a career surrogate for her mother who only made it so far in the dance world in her day before having children. It is nice to see Barbara Hershey in this film, but I wish she had a little more to do. That applies to pretty much the entire cast with the exception of Portman. Aronofsky keeps the camera on her face when things are happening to her, but also favours that ‘behind the head’ technique used frequently in The Wrestler. There is something about the technique that undercuts the film. It worked for the sad optimism of Randy The Ram, but for the acute performance anxiety and burbling internal pressures of Nina, the more aggressive techniques he used in pi and Requiem for a Dream may have better served things. As it stands, there is something about Black Swan that feels muted. For the high melodrama of the story and the cliché feel of many of the scenes, not the least of which that ‘there is always someone younger and hungrier to replace the lead,’ ‘it’s lonely at the top,’ etc. a little more bombast may have helped things along. This certainly is not a character study as the characters are all in total subservience to the metamorphosis (physical, psychological) angle of the story.

Still if one of the key advantages of cinema is to let the viewer experience a world they are unfamiliar with from the inside, and Black Swan does let you creep around inside of Nina’s world, where reality is getting a little wobbly. Is that rash the beginning of her turning into an actual Swan? Brought about by the stress? I can only imagine the dedication that is required of people at the top of their field, be it sport or performing arts. Thomas, who is seen casually tossing aside his old star in favour of the new one, also seems to aim for high art using pretty extreme methods, albeit it is from the perspective of who those methods are practiced on. He initially tells Nina that she did not get the part, just to see how she reacts to failure. He tells her to touch herself more to find her passion. He seduces her if only to show that she failed to seduce him. The acts of professional cruelty are enough to suggest that he may be playing at pushing another dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis) into the lead role if only to force Nina to hit her darker headspace and channel that into the Black Swan. The requirement to for Nina to move from craft perfection to actual art. Besides, in a movie such as this, which is more sexy, the bad girl, Lily (you can tell because she has the black winged back-tattoo and she smokes), behaving badly with sex and drugs pre-performance all-nighters, or the seduced innocent willingly partaking of narcotics and lesbian sex as an act of defiance?

Black Swan does play a little too cute with its clues and symbols and does not go far enough to hit the visceral visual highs of Aronofsky’s previous pictures. Not to harp on this further, but it is not trashy enough to be Paul Verhoeven or grotesque enough to be David Cronenberg. Here Aronofsky has made a film for a much broader audience, and the film perhaps suffers a tad for it (at least in the expectations set by the directors previous pictures.) It is a film made for those people who vote for the Oscars or talk about the Oscars incessantly (Yes, I am not unaware of the irony in that statement, but when online and print writers decry Natalie Portman as a shoe-in, is it because this is the best performance of the year, or is it because it is the type of performance that wins Oscars? Does it really matter? For the record, I thought Portman was ickier and stickier in Mike Nichols Closer. But where the film does flirt with transcendence is when Nina finally dances the Black Swan in front of an audience outside of the many on screen rehearsals. That is the shock and awe (and transcendence of archetype) I came to see. On the whole, things suffer too often from the same meticulous craft-but-not-art Thomas is trying to beat out of Nina.

 

Kurt Halfyard
Resident culture snob.

109 Comments

  1. Ok it's official, 2010 is the year that anticipation paid off. A running list of the films I was anticipating and which in most cases exceeded my expectations:

    Shutter Island

    Greenberg

    Inception

    Toy Story 3

    127 Hours

    Black Swan

    Meek's Cutoff

    Another Year

    The Social Network

    The Town

    Never Let Me Go

    seriously this NEVER happens. My expectations for Black Swan were somewhat lower, I am a big Aronofsky fan but the premise wasn't doing it for me on paper… but goddamn does this movie work! I haven't read much on it, I know the Red Shoes aspect people are referencing, but for me the biggest reference point of the entire film is Carrie… it even felt like a DePalma film to me. But the whole smothering mother thing, the budding sexuality, the sense of people mocking you out of the corner of your eyes, and then, of course, where things go batshit in the final set-piece, it is Carrie, the ballet version. Praise has been heaped on it already, and I half-suspected it was wrong but no, this is an incredibly strong film, it isn't high-concept wankery, it is full-on get inside the theme and live it and breathe it and rip it apart and leave you exasperated by it all.

    So disappointed Wolverine II is his next project.

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  2. Just saw Black Swan today, and I think it was about an hour before I could form words beyond "wow." So yeah, I thought it was great. I also forgot who else I was gonna consider for Best Actress of the year after Portman blew me away. I'm sure some of that is the initial overwhelming nature of the film, but it was definitely a virtuoso performance.

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  3. portman is a solid second, or maybe a tie, but Lesley Manville in Another Year is phenomonal and deserves the Oscar. I have been watching Leigh's All or Nothing, and it is incredible to me that Manville in that is the same actor as in Another Year.

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  4. I agree with Rot. While Portman is indeed excellent, she's not in the same league with Ms. Manville in ANOTHER YEAR.

    (And ALL OR NOTHING was my favorite film of its year of release (2002?) as well, Rot! I love Timothy Spall and Manville in that one, particularly the closing scene…Totally forgot that Sally Hawkins was in there too…)

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  5. I forgot how great All or Nothing is, and yeah, a very young Sally Hawkins in it.

    top five Mike Leigh films

    1. Naked

    2. Another Year

    3. All or Nothing

    4. Topsy-Turvy

    5. Happy-Go-Lucky

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  6. "Not to harp on this further, but it is not trashy enough to be Paul Verhoeven or grotesque enough to be David Cronenberg."

    Really Kurt? I thought it was nearly as viscerally assaultive as Requiem, and certainly the way both films play to a crescendo that leaves you gobsmacked, is in both. I don't know, my esteem for Black Swan is growing by the day. I thought I had it figured out but it is more than the sum of its parts, it has a dark pit to it and like INLAND EMPIRE its a film where you feel the madness from within. I don't feel like Aronofsky pulled any punches.

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  7. No doubt he hits a crescendo in the final sequence, but everything up to that was a trot-out of cliches. I still struggle with out rote the secondary characters are in the film. Is it due to direction, or intent that Portman's character is self involved enough that the movie reflects that by just treating everyone else as a cipher. (Mom included, but I do see the CARRIE comparison that you mention, indeed.)

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  8. ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* You mention his tendency to shoot her from close-up behind most of the time except when she's talking or reacting as a negative – I think it was really purposeful, and it has to do with your last comment that her character is self-involved. It may not even be so much that she's self-involved (though she is), but that we are seeing everything so closely tied to her point of view. And her point of view is singularly focused on achieving perfection that she can't see anything else except that and her growing madness. It's also a way of cueing us not to believe anything we see, whether it seems like it's from her POV or not – because EVERYTHING is to one degree or another. There's nothing we see that's not filtered through her, and yeah, I'd say that's why the other characters are less well-developed. They don't matter except as they affect her delusions.

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  9. I guess somewhat delving into spoiler territory here, but the only other characters to talk about is the mother and Leroy and Lilly (Winona Ryder is a fairly marginal character all around). The mother feels, again, like something out of a Lynch nightmare, and that may have to do with the psychological element of the film, but she not entirely a caricature, she feels more like a sidelined character because of Portman's self-involvement… there are a lot of scenes where you see her mother before or after an event but you don't really get her to monologue, she exists in between fugue states almost. I don't think they over-played the 'mother living vicariously through daughter' aspect, because near the end she chooses to barricade her daughter from the ballet, in order to save her (that is against type). Leroy, also, is a kind of half-committed stereotype… he may or may not have tried to seduce Portman's character, but he mostly walks the line of being professional. I got the feeling the artistry was most important to him, and he was pushing her by any means necessary to get that expression on the stage. It flirts with the stereotype but gives something more. Lilly (Mila Kunis) is a minor character given greater importance within the psychology of story, if she is a cliche, it is certainly serving a purpose (a great bait and switch that took me in). And Portman is reduced to one ambition because that is what the entire movie is about, her struggle to be perfect.

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  10. ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER*******

    I think a lot of what we saw of Lily didn't actually happen, but was part of the delusion.

    I also agree, rot, that the mother wasn't totally one-note. Again, a lot of that was played up by Nina's psychological state, but there were quieter moments here and there where a more balanced view of the mother started to come into focus before delusion took over again. I'll look for specific examples of that when I see it again.

    Speaking of Lily – props to the casting department on casting both Lily and Beth with two actresses who aren't Portman lookalikes, but look enough like her to make you hesitate as her delusions get wilder. If they'd just had Keira Knightley in there somewhere…. (just kidding, I would not have wanted that).

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  11. and Kurt, I implore you to rewatch Topsy-Turvy, there are so many parts to that film that are glorious. Timothy Spall as the great egoist, .. Broadbent at his Broadbentian best… I realize it is outside of the realm of what Leigh usually does, but it is so fucking good. It was my first Mike Leigh film, too.

    And Jandy if you can appreciate Fish Tank you would appreciate Mike Leigh's blue collar movies. They are all great.

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  12. BTW, they trailered The Tree of Life with Black Swan. After watching the trailer, I have NO IDEA what the film is about – something about fathers and sons and expectations and planets and canyons. But I'm dying to see it. Hopefully a non-bootlegged version will show up online soon, but I haven't found it yet.

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  13. They didn't show the trailer in TO, I was pissed. Watched it bootlegged online and it didn't disappoint, but like I said elsewhere, I have no idea how Malick can pull this one off… this is like The Fountain-level earnestness and scope.

    It is about life, the cycle, the universe.

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  14. Also, whether intentional or not, continually putting things in close-up regarding something that is "made-up" to be seen from far away just enhances the gaudy-grotesque elements in the final scene. The first image of that post, being a prime example. Ballet is supposed to be about the body and yet so much of the film is locked on her face.

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  15. also, I was surprised how worn Portman looked in the film… you are used to the made up beauty, but she is weathered in this and every close-up exaggerates her every imperfection.

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  16. As Todd field did with Kate Winslet in LITTLE CHILDREN, yes. Curious, the director of Julia's Eyes, also photographs his leading lady to show off her dermal flaws….high contrast lighting.

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  17. Could someone who's seen both Black Swan and Blue Valentine comment on this: http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/la-et…. Basically suggests that the Mila Kunis/Natalie Portman sex scene in Black Swan is the same level of explicitness as the supposedly NC-17 scene in Blue Valentine. Agree? Disagree? I know we're all anti-MPAA on this, but I'm just curious if you'd agree that the scenes are similar in terms of explicit content.

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  18. I mentioned this article in the Blue Valentine thread… it is ridiculous. Black Swan is way more graphic than Blue Valentine, the motivation for the NC-17 (which I am surprised no one else has mentioned this) is political (watch THIS FILM IS NOT RATED).

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  19. ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER*******

    Also, one is in a dream, the other is not.

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  20. ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER*******

    Kurt's everything is a dream interpretation again :)

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  21. ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER*******

    Kurt, that was my initial thought too, which is just as ridiculous. Does that mean I can put hardcore XXX stuff in my movie, but if I put it in a dream sequence, it's fine?

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  22. Black Swan feels like a blend of Requiem and the Wrestler… certainly the crescendo of Requiem (although Requiem beats all crescendos, I remember a silent dumbfounded audience as the credits rolled at TIFF), and the first person following camera of Wrestler.

    Requiem is a powerful film, Ellen Burstyn gives a devastating performance, but I prefer the muted greatness of The Wrestler, and the insularity of Black Swan.

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  23. I live in Australia so have only seen the trailer to date. Nothing in this trailer makes me want to see the film – I found the acting from portman , cassell and kunis very wooden and the dialogue incredibly cliched. I found it clunky and was hoping for so much more .

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  24. I'm a big Fan of pi, it is just that Aronofsky has gotten better and better with each film. Even is Black Swan is a bit of a step back (or as Rot says, a bit of an amalgamation of other Aronofsky milestones), it's still great. This direction does not have a dud in his filmography!

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  25. Taking a slight jump back to the whole MPAA thing, I thought This Film Is Not Yet Rated was a great look into the whole rating system until they went all "private investigator" and wasted time that could have been spent interviewing more filmmakers burned by the rating system or further educating on the whole rating process and how it affects films' release and distributions. I thought it was great that that film was made, but I wish it had been smarter.

    As to Black Swan itself, I can only hold it against Requiem For A Dream, which it's second to by "just a tad." :)

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  26. Then Jonathan H needs to see The Fountain – right now.

    Jonathan, I agree with your point about This Film Is Not Yet Rated. I just didn't find that P.I. stuff to be very interesting – particularly because there were more angles to cover in the main story. It feels like Kirby took a dislike to the MPAA people (I don't doubt that's easy to do) and ran with that…

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  27. Kurt, you caught Black Swan during the whirlwind of TIFF, I suggest seeing it again, it's greater than you remember. But that's just my opinion, man.

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  28. and to that comment awhile back, I love Pi (especially the soundtrack), it's merely the least great of a stellar body of work. Nice to see perv subway rider reappear in Black Swan

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    • Finally I am here. This movie is completely magnificent. Where to start? Performances? Ok, Portman: Possibly performance of the year so far (haven't seen <span class="movie">Another Year</span>). The scene where she learns of getting the part and calling mom = stunning. Cassell: At the beginning I thought it was just an overly obvious casting choice but as the film wore on his character intrigued me more and more. I'm with Rot. I don't think he's quite as sinister as we're led to believe. He deeply cares about the art and will do anything to make it come out of someone. I truly think he has the best of intentions even if he goes about it in the wrong way sometimes. In short, he's not a sleazy as we're to think he is at the beginning. Kunis: Not seeing quite the amazingness that everyone else is seeing. Perhaps it's simply because it Kunis and she's never done anything heady before so we're all surprised. But really just about anyone with the look could've pulled this off. It's good, but the praises are being heaped on a bit too much me thinks.

      Camera work: at first I was a bit annoyed and off-put by the claustrophobic intimacy of the camera being in everyone's faces and being confined in close quarters. As the film wore on the camera began pulling back and allowing us to breath a bit. Love the shots in the dance studio with all of the reflective surfaces (all over the movie actually) and not a camera or crewman in sight (nice CGI work there); it was very impressive. And filming ballet like that is difficult as hell and wow did Aronofsky pull it off and get me into the movement. The mise en scene and cinematography at work here were brilliant at almost every turn. Even something as cliché as a dance club was hypnotizing in its beauty and feel – I'd love to rewatch that scene in slow motion sometime. I feel there's some stuff going on in those stills in the background that are haunting (or at least interesting).

      Cassell's character spells it out for us right away: "We're going to be doing 'Swan Lake.' Been done to death right? Not like this!" Exactly. This movie is a fascinating remake (twice over in some ways) of the classic Russian story. But it's done from a different angle and setting. I don't see anything in here that is cliché at all – unless you consider the original opera cliché; and that is what, 150 years old(?)… then I guess maybe. Ryder's character seemed a little bit out of place and not sure how she fits in but she certainly added some psychological madness to the story and helped keep perspective with regard to Nina's story arc.

      The film is atmospheric, moody, gorgeous, well performed, captivating, horroific, artfully stylistic, original and captivating. Likely my favorite Aronfsky film to date next to maybe <span class="movie">The Wrestler</span> (i'l have to think about that and let this one settle in a bit more). If I had reviewed this film I'd be hard pressed not to award a 5/5 star rating for this one.

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  29. I have no idea. Did you not feel the impact of the ending? Its foremost a psychological horror not gore-fest, but even on the level of gore, or bodily harm, I don't know what else they could have done…I could feel everyone cringing when her mother is cutting her nails, the elements of decaying of her body is pretty explicit, and you have the Winona Ryder scene which is pure horror, as what happens to Portman's character… but what I find the most hypnotic is the projection of her inner turmoil… the sounds of wings flapping or people talking about her in the corner of her eye, the mirror stuff, the paintings of her, the fragility of the world around her… that is the horror to me and man does it pay-off in that finale.

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  30. aside from Carrie, which I think Black Swan takes much of its story and visuals from, Black Swan feels like INLAND EMPIRE, inside the headspace of someone going crazy.

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  31. Yea, I got the ending, It was indeed impactful, but getting there was kinda safe and lacked much in the way of humanity….I say in the above reveiw that the final scenes work like gangbusters. I think the endings of Requiem and The Fountain are stronger on an 'affect me' sense….And The Wrestler had more human moments (connection, regret, etc.)…. At times Portman feels more like a robot than anything else, I know that is part of her 'break things down in the crucible of being THE BEST' but still… I did love all the mirror stuff. I did indeed. I'm talking the full experience of the entire movie…too much left me flat. The ending as awesome as it is, simply cannot make me consider this a GREAT movie…it's a really good one, but not up to my own expectations of this director…hence disappointment. It's still a 4/5 film. No doubt.

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  32. but the ending is the culmination (down to the last line) of everything that came before… I don't know how you can separate it. It works visually, sure, but the impact for me is psychological, I am worried for the character, and that doesn't come from the virtuoso of one scene, it comes from living with this character for the couple of hours prior.

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  33. Kurt, I think you hit the issue with Black Swan on the nose. Aronofsky didn't go far enough. I wanted it to be MORE: more scary, more creepy, more desperate, more anything. The directions he went in, he just went halfway. If you're gonna do psycho drama, do PSYCHO drama!

    Portman did a good job with what she was given, but imagine how she could have done if he'd flown faster and looser, like with REQUIEM FOR A DREAM…

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    • I'm not entirely sure what you wanted out of this Kurt. I don't think I would want it to be more gory, more over the top or more anything. The moments that are in here for that kind of stuff are pretty affecting (cheek stabbing, mom over bathtub, talking paintings, bits of illusion, sound cues (are amazing), the tactile feel of the whole experience). Again, this is a 19th century opera redone by Aronofsky – and it's quite fucked with enough. More would be less here. The arthouse feel to the whole thing is what makes it great. Adding more J-horror elements (which are clearly here already) would ruin the effect.

      This movie is so not safe – that would be Get Low or Kontroll. It seems right up your alley and I think you were in some kind of weird, sleep deprived funk when you saw this at TIFF.

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  34. This movie is so not safe – that would be… Kontroll

    Really? An existential, black comedy set entirely in a metro station.

    Safe film: Rachel Getting Married.

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  35. Black Swan is my favorite film of the year. For me its the total package of performance, sight, sound, drama, some sense of humor about itself, some bizarre moments, playing with obvious symbols in ways that make me forget they are obvious.

    It's the only film of this year where I have felt so swept away with a character. It's my favorite 'descent into madness' film since the Shining and its obviously a perfect companion piece to the Wrestler of an athlete/artist at the start of their career vs. the end.

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  36. I can't really put my finger on it but I didn't love BLACK SWAN. Liked it quite a bit and have a feeling I'll like it more with repeat viewings but I didn't have the instant love for it that I did for THE FOUNTAIN after the first viewing. Still, there's quite a bit to dig into here and Andrew nailed by first thought: how the film itself is a near perfect re-telling of Swan Lake.

    I have some of the similar issues Kurt did – I didn't think it was visceral enough but that could have been expectation too. And I love so much of this supporting cast: Cassel, Kunis, Solo – I would have liked to see more of them all.

    ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER*******

    I was just re-reading a Kurt's review and I think there's some misunderstanding on the age of Portman's character. Kurt – you mention that she's young enough to be living with her mother but I'm not sure that's true. I got the sense that she's older than many of the other dancers but severely over protected and micro-managed. As crazy as her mom gets (and I'm leaning to the idea that most of the craziness that happens in the last part of the film is all in Nina's mind), it doesn't go far enough considering how controlling she is in the first half. It feels like Aronofsky should have taken some of the film's advise and let himself go.

    And the bit about Tomas casting her in the role of the white and black swan… I thought he *had* originally chosen Veronica and then changed his mind after Nina bit him. He even makes a comment on that later, something about how he wanted more of the bite she showed yesterday or something to that effect.

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  37. ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER*******

    But what is it that's missing? If anything I would say Aronofsky does let himself go, the final sequence is a maddening crescendo, and by the end you realize she has been dancing with a jagged piece of glass in her stomach, how much more visceral do you need? She transforms into a black swan, body ripping apart, you have hot lesbian sex, masturbation, bodily mutilation including jabbing a pen through a cheek and neck, a pretty awesome rave scene, psychotic paintings… Maybe if all that just hung there with no forward propulsion, but the movie builds towards that end so perfectly.

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  38. ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER*******

    The problem for me is that the last act of the film all feels like a troubled dream and I wasn't sure that the dance itself was real or just part of Nina's subconscious. And with this idea that it was all a dream, I didn't think it was bad enough. I didn't have the emotional reaction I did to, say, REQUIEM.

    I was expecting her to wake up when she fell at the end of the ballet and it had all been a dream and when she didn't, the impact of all the events, including the self stabbing, having actually happened didn't hit me.

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  39. ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER*******

    I agree with Marina on NIna's age. She's been with the company quite a while, I think; I got the sense that she's been passed over for leads that by rights of seniority should've been hers. But her emotional growth is stunted – the little girl's decor that defines her room isn't an indication of her actual age, but a sign of an unnatural disconnect between her age and her maturity, a disconnect that may not entirely explain but certainly contributes to her psychosis.

    On the subject of letting go – I'm more with rot on this one, it was quite visceral and intense for me as it is. One thing, though, is that Nina was constantly battling between letting go and holding back, and to some degree holding back wasn't a bad thing (letting go killed her, after all). That tension and lack of release until the last second is what I found compelling – that I wanted her to let go to play the part and become her own person (away from her mother, who I still don't think is totally evil, but certainly she's too old to still be living at home in those conditions), but it's so opposite her character to let go the way Lily can that I couldn't feel it was right/safe/advisable for her to let go so completely. And perhaps that tension between letting go and holding on is reflected in Aronofsky's stylistic approach. Haven't thought that through, and I want a rewatch, but it's a thought.

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  40. And a good one too Jandy. For me, this is definitely one that I need to see again. I feel like the first time I was so busy with the look of the movie that I didn't really get a chance to feel it. It's weird since it's usually the other way around, emotional response first and then a closer view at the technical, but I really had an emotional disconnect with the film. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that I saw THE KING'S SPEECH first? Who the heck knows.

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  41. I'm leaning towards Marina and Kurt's points of view…Don't get me wrong – the film is pretty damn great. Loved the gazillion mirrors, performances (I don't see the knocks against Kunis, she was terrific as Portman's foil), the horror elements, etc.

    ******SPOILER******* ******SPOILER*******

    I don't know what was missing to put it over the top for me. Even though the ending falls in line with the re-telling of the ballet, I wish she hadn't died. I think it would have been more emotionally devastating for her to be OK at the end – in other words, in order to perform as good as that, she has to lose herself to madness every day (the skin, the blood, the stabbings, etc.). If I was left with a solo shot of her in her dressing room afterwards knowing she would have to go through with that every time, i think that would have been more devastating.

    It's nit picking to a certain extent – "it wasn't perfect!" – but I kinda wanted it to be, as others have said, more.

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  42. This could just be because I've only seen this and Requiem, but I was quite fine with the choices that Aronofsky made and didn't really consider them too safe or safe in a negative light. In fact, I got the impression that the choices made were to accentuate Portman's struggle with "letting go." Definitely kept me on edge throughout the film and made me wish to god either Portman or Aronofsky would just go off the deep end already!

    I definitely need to see this one again. :)

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  43. I think Rot has said that brilliantly. I can knock on what didn't quite blow me out of the water, but I liked the film a lot, on a craft level it's extraordinary. I don't think it quite hits its own artistic intent, but it comes very close.

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  44. It's an interesting vagary of criticism that we sometimes end up sounding the harshest on things we really like and the most forgiving on things we don't. It's like, if we really really like it, we want the one or two tiny little things that niggle at us to be better, but if we don't like it that much, we're happy to find a couple of things we did. At least, that's true for me – I try to balance it out, but I don't do a very good job most of the time.

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  45. Yup. But if you take things all at a level where you are not critical of the middle or of expectations, then you end up like Roger Ebert's database of 3-3.5 Star Reviews…Incidentally, why I hate Star Ratings. I'd rather read what bugged a critic or what endeared them about a movie that is otherwise in 'group-think,' anyways.

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  46. I agree, although I use the star ratings as part of this balance. If I rate a movie 4.5 stars and then nitpick on stuff, it's clearer that I'm nitpicking on something I really liked rather than listing reasons something is terrible. (Incidentally, a few people I've talked to who haven't read your reviews a lot thought this one was negative and you didn't like Black Swan much at all – I know enough about the way you write to immediately know you liked it a lot with some reservations, but that's where your hated star ratings could've made your position clearer to new readers. But I know I'm not going to convince you, so I'll rest my case!) But really, for me it's just that it's too easy to pick out two or three things to talk about (negative or positive), and usually those two or three things are the few things that oppose the majority of how I feel about the movie, just because they're easier to verbalize. I have to consciously try to remember to discuss all reasons I liked/disliked something rather than jumping straight to the exceptions.

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    • Yeah Kurt from reading this review I guess I was under the impression that to you this movie is essentially a safe, middle of the road, cliche-ridden, bore-fest that is just done better in everything else.

      I disagree with pretty much everything you say in the final paragraph. I think this is a case where you wanted something here that the film simply wasn't attempting to be. Saying Portman isn't as good here as she was in Closer because the character isn't "ickier and stickier" is unfair I think. Or it isn't good because it isn't "trashy or grotesque". Is the film trying to be either of these things? It's certainly trying to get at the darker side of obsession/perfection. It certainly has some moments that are trashy and grotesque, but I'm not sure the movie is out to shock you in that way. It's attempting to get inside a character's head as to the motivations as her inner demon (for lack of a better phrase) takes hold. In the end I think I think it's supposed to be darkly beautiful (ala Swan Lake) more than shockingly tragic.

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  47. "Here Aronofsky has made a film for a much broader audience, and the film perhaps suffers a tad for it (at least in the expectations set by the directors previous pictures.) It is a film made for those people who vote for the Oscars or talk about the Oscars incessantly "

    I stand by this sentence completely.

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  48. I understand what you mean, Kurt, and I do completely agree with your comment about Portman's role being the type of role that wins Oscars, but I'd 100 gazillion times rather have Black Swan than the heartwarming, odds-overcoming films that I tend to think of as classic Oscar-bait (like The King's Speech, which I admittedly haven't seen, but is being marketed in such a way that I don't want to). Black Swan still has an edge to it, a darkness, and a despair that I WANT the Academy to honor more often than it usually does.

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  49. Even if it comes at dulling the edge a bit for the Academy? Not sure if this was intentional, it probably wasn't, but in light of Aronofsky's other films, this one seems a little more 'level' – in the same way that Cronenberg has been doing things in the last couple pictures…

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  50. Kurt, in this case, yes. Black Swan is a film I can fully stand behind – one that I really loved and that I can also recommend to almost everyone I know. Your tastes are a little more out there than most people's and that's fine – I agree with you in aggregate, but if a film can succeed as well as Black Swan does on every level and remain accessible to a larger audience, then I'm fine with that. A film doesn't have to be unpalatable to the mainstream in order to be good. I wouldn't argue for accessibility across the board (I certainly love plenty of less accessible films), but in this case, I didn't personally feel like Black Swan compromised the way you do. It's an edgy mainstream film, and I don't think that's bad – in fact, the more I think about it, the more I think any pulling toward normality the film does do actually increased the tension in interesting and effective ways. I think i would've liked the film you wanted Black Swan to be, too, but I don't have a problem with this one.

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  51. I shout into the interweb abyss again: Where is the compromise?!!!

    A film made for Academy voters? What?! Is this really a likely prospect for this film? How many horror films get nominated? How many films with lesbian sex get nominated? How many films with self-mutilation get nominated?

    I truly don't see this 'safe' argument. Like Andrew said, it wasn't trying to be J-Hor, on the grounds of a psychological mindfuck, when you end up ****SPOILERS*** with a shard of glass tearing into your innards all the while with the dread of being discovered for murder all the while dancing the dance you have been living your whole life to do, all the while your body is ripping apart into a black swan, all the while the music and the camerawork work you into a crescendo, I didn't observe it, I felt it, everything felt immediate and primal by the end.

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    • I just don't see this "safe" angle at all – or that Aronofsky "dumbed down" the movie for the academy. This is not Benjamin Button. To make the movie good there has to be more what… blood? Drug use? Abusiveness? Nudity? I agree with Jandy that the fact this stuff is NOT there is partially what helps make this movie amazing. It's dark and nasty enough to scrape the edges but it excels at being beautiful and technically palatable at the same time. The scratching and the talking paintings and the sound effects and the scaly skin and red eyes and self-mutilation and sweaty sexual (innapropriate?) encounters is PLENTY icky for this movie. Any more and we're talking a flat out horror film. Which is not what this film is striving for or should be striving for.

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  52. I nearly completely agree with Kurt. Except I found all except the last 20 minutes of the film dull and predictable. I was horribly disappointed. And sorry, I can't jump on the Portman bandwagon. I haven't seen anything good from her since The Professional.

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  53. I concur with Andrew. I simply don't get how this film can be considered "safe." And Aronofsky is definitely not a director who caters to the Academy. While I think the film stands a chance of getting nominated in several categories, it was not made with that intent.

    SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

    I mean, there's fairly explicit lesbian sex, masturbation scenes, a cheek stabbing, a weird rave scene, etc.

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  54. It may get nominated if they are doing the best picture ten category, but no way in hell it would have been nominated if it was only five… you have to go back to Silence of the Lambs nearly twenty years ago to have anything comparable.

    I particularly enjoyed Natalie Portman in Hotel Chavalier, which I caught for the first time this week… surprising amount of naked Portman in such a short short.

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  55. Andrew, it is all subjective. I found the movie and Portman boring. It is my personal taste. Obviously I'm in the minority, but that doesn't mean my opinion is wrong or invalid. There was no subtlety or mystery to the film, and Portman for me is not a strong enough actor to maintain my interest. I'm sure there are movies that I love that you find boring. But I still love you too. ;)

    [**EDIT** Shelagh's Review is up at DORKSHELF ]

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  56. ******BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS******..question. I could not understand Nina’s last line in the movie when she fell to her death (the volume in the theater was low) . What did she say when Thomas asked her why did you do this (stab herself)?

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  57. ******BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS************BLACK SWAN SPOILERS******

    Was it “It was perfect”? I know she said that at the end, but I’m not sure if it was the last thing she said. I think it might’ve been.

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  58. The error I find in that critique of Black Swan is it does not appreciate that a film can have aspects of camp without having to have the quotations marks placed over the entire film, safely archived and explained. It bothers him that a film might not directly appeal to the critic aspirations for consistency, it must be a flaw of the film if it aspires to be more than one experience packaged in a couple of hours. A similar criticism could be made toward Little Children, which has campy aspects (the voiceover for one) but I don’t see it as a valid criticism that it does not stay consistent with some ordained way of dramatics, so long as the experience however varied stimulates an effect… in the case of Black Swan what better material to feel off-put, not quite sure of what you are supposed to feel (in safe quotation marks) than a film about a disorienting subjectivity.

    This Slate writer likely read the one from his colleague a couple years back on There Will Be Blood.

    http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/2009/07/earnest-goes-to-camp-daniel-plainview-susan-sontag-and-that-ending/

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  59. also I disagree that The Fountain is camp, it is as earnest an expression of the poetic as one is going to find in modern cinema. This writer seems desperate to label anything he doesn’t understand as camp.

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  60. Many people do not know it when they see it. (Note the initial reaction to STARSHIP TROOPERS)

    I find it amusing that Rot and I differ on Black Swan and There Will Be Blood for what might be the exact same reasons….

    I’ve got no problem with confusing, but I just find Black Swan far to straight forward. I admit that I can get hung up on ‘categorizing’ but really, that is not the case (for me personally) here. Here it is a case of NOT ENOUGH.

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  61. This is a key sentence which I like “The scene’s lunacy is secondary to its aesthetic function; camp defamiliarizes the film we thought we knew.” I don’t think that BLACK SWAN does this at all. Which makes the two articles (one on TWBB the other on Black Swan) different enough, despite similarities….

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  62. The difference for me is I felt character attachment in Black Swan, and with TWBB it was a flat line, it seemed to be about character (so this is not a case of something like Malick’s work) but when it comes to it, it had nothing to say, and the adding on of a camp ending is like someone who writes himself to the end of the story, realizes he’s got nothing, and tries quickly to subvert it in the final page. With Black Swan at least the tonal shifts are interspersed, and work with the desired effect… with TWBB it is one scene out of context, and seemingly undermining any gravitas of the character, which the last two hours implied heavily we were supposed to care about. If it is just a joke, than why the calls for it being a masterpiece?

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  63. also what scene’s lunacy are you referring to? If the end of TWBB, I agree entirely… but like I said, it is a joke ending… a story that has nothing new to say, no insight into character, or arc, so rather than try and get at anything about the character, about the relationship of religion and commerce, it winks.

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  64. Is that winking, or expunging all of the characters poisons in a ‘grand finale’? I think the latter. Loud and full of fury is the right ending to bookend the ‘tense and silent’ beginning.

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  65. I couldn’t disagree more with his last paragraph, part of the greatness of the film for me is that I didn’t see what happens in the final set-piece coming… can you say honestly you KNEW (***SPOILERS***) that the murder was a delusion and rather than killing someone with a shard of glass she had been dancing the duration of the ballet with it in her gut? You are meant to be disoriented, and I call foul on anyone that pretends to have known ahead of time… the momentum of the scene doesn’t give you a breath to even consider, you are moving forward so fast that you don’t see it coming. And I am sorry, a horror film being obvious? If you mean that one knows things are going to go horribly wrong by the end, well duh. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey, and the journey is awesome. It plays with familiar tropes the same way Lynch does in Mulholland Dr, are they obvious too? It is a film that would rather be shackled to the needs of character subjectivity than be an external checklist of showy cinematic expression. The ‘obviousness’ is part of the character’s perspective, she is singular in her ambition, she lives a sheltered life, she sees people starkly as enemies or seducers and splinters in the process. Despite this obviousness by design I still think as an experience, the twists Aronofsky takes are not entirely foreseeable, you of course know something is going to go wrong and things aren’t what they seem, but did you know when Mila Kunis’ character was real and when she was not?

    I would say similarly Somewhere is painfully obvious in what it is saying and expressing, but this too would be a weak criticism. It is never trying to be well-constructed, hitting that checklist of satisfying drama. It is very much about playing Wii tennis, doing laps in a pool, driving a luxury car in circles… there is a zen quality that gets absurd when you try and say it is failing at something it is not aspiring for. It is fine if you are saying you don’t like zen, you don’t like this kind of experience, but it is not a short-coming of what Aronofsky of Copolla are trying to do.

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  66. The writer doesn’t mention whether he liked or disliked The Wrestler… I can’t see how you could slight the ‘obviousness’ of Black Swan and embrace what it is an even more obvious Aronofsky narrative with The Wrestler.

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