Thursday, February 10, 2011


I finally saw Black Swan. The film has been nominated for 8 Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and star Natalie Portman is the clear frontrunner for Best Actress. It was directed by Darren Aronofsky, who also made the films π and The Wrestler (see MadProfessah's review).

Black Swan is a bona fide hit, having been made for a mere $13 million and as of February 1 2011, grossed nearly $100 million.

I, however, was not so impressed. I can see clearly why Portman is a near-lock for the Best Actress Oscar, mainly because she is in nearly every frame of the film and it's impact is centered around her performance. She plays Nina Sayers, a beautiful, timid (but obsessive) ballet dancer who gets the lead role as the White Swan in Swan Lake. In this production one dancer will play the Swan Queen and the Black Swan. Nina apparently starts to go insane under the strain of trying to change her essentially innocent "White Swan" nature into the villainous, aggressive "Black Swan." Nina's alter ego Lily in the film is played by Natalie Portman's best friend Mila Kunis, another dancer in the company who has the risky temperament better suited to the Black Swan. Lily is either trying to loosen up Nina and admires her dancing or (as seen from Nina's warped perspective) Lily is stalking Nina and will stop at nothing until she replaces Nina as the star of the show.

Other actors in the movie are Winona Ryder as the bitter, over-the-hill ballerina who Nina is replacing as the star of the ballet company, Vincent Cassel as the main choreographer/artistic director of the ballet company and Barbara Hershey as Nina's mom. Hershey is particularly striking because she is very clingy, almost to the point of smothering. But what makes Hershey memorable is her appearance; her face is bloated (from excessive plastic surgery?) and many times when she appears on screen and the rhetorical question "What is up with her face?" comes unbidden into the viewer's mind.

Overall, the word that comes to mind to describe Black Swan is "overwrought." The film is described as a "psychosexual thriller" by some critics, but this assumes a very heterosexual male viewpoint (which is an odd thing to say about a film which is based in the behind-the-scenes milieu of ballet). Even watching the film as a gay man I can appreciate Natalie Portman's beauty and she clearly carries the film. However, what happens to her character has clearly been written by a straight man (let's just say there's a lot of shots of scantily clad dancers and a fairly explicit, nudity-free lesbian sex scene between Kunis and Portman). The film doesn't really have much to appeal to either gay men or straight women (apart from the fabulous ballet costumes); there are very few shots of any hot, athletic bodies of male dancers, for example. Are women who watch the film supposed to identify with Nina or Lily or just be appalled at what the effects of obsession-compulsion can be? There is no female character which has a positive sense of agency--except perhaps Lily, but she is fetishized as an outsider ("Just flew in from San Francisco"). Meanwhile the central male character  is clearly an asshole but this goes unchallenged because he's the boss--sexual harassment is assumed and normalized.

Black Swan is a film which is worth seeing for Natalie Portman's lead performance--in the comfort of your own home.

TitleBlack Swan.
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.
Release Date: December 3, 2010.

Plot: B-.
Acting: A. 
Visuals: A-.
Impact: C-.

Overall Grade: B-/C+ (3.00/4.0).

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