With his psychological thriller Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky (The Fighter) again concerns himself with a performer’s driving need to be in the spotlight, and its corresponding psychic toll.
No one can be blamed for finding Black Swan overwrought or ridiculous: it’s both. But those who meet Aronofsky halfway can get off on this exercise in dichotomy: the ballet film wedded to Grand Guignol, an exploitation picture granted a big star (Natalie Portman), Showgirls transplanted to Lincoln Center.
Dichotomy is the heart of the problem for longtime ensemble player Nina Sayers (Portman), who covets the leading dual role in a high-scale New York ballet production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Though she has the attention of Balanchine-inspired artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel)—or is that the attentions?—he vocally questions her ability to play both the innocent White Swan and the sinful Black Swan.
Leroy takes the leap of casting Nina, seemingly to stroke his own ego as he creates a star and to take advantage of her gratitude. “Perfection is not just about control,” he purrs. “It’s also about letting go.” Letting go is, of course, dangerously close to coming unhinged, as Nina steadily does over the course of the film. Screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin (working from a story by Heinz) paint Nina’s issues in the broadest of strokes: Nina’s jealously protective, smothering stage mother (Barbara Hershey, enjoying her Mommy Dearest moment) has made her daughter dangerously repressed, and it’ll only take a few choice shoves to send the dancer over the edge.
In the twenty-first century, it’s hard to swallow that such a delicate flower has made it into the ballet elite with her sensibilities as yet unchallenged, and the film flirts with sexism, in part by suggesting that Nina’s ambition dooms her to bipolar mania: she’s either sexually frigid or vamp, victim or victimizer, snapping as easily as her brutalized dancer’s feet.
Ironically, Aronofsky also casts a sympathetic gaze on the well-documented punishment of the ballerina: the physical deterioration, the not-uncommon endurance of sexual harassment, and the inevitability of being discarded for the latest model. The All About Eve model recurs as prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (a cleverly cast Winona Ryder) must yield to Nina, who in turn fears her sexy understudy Lily (Mila Kunis).
Where Black Swan most succeeds is in Aronofsky’s high-flying style, his approach to the story as a fever dream blurring the fine line between a performer playing a role and a psychotic succumbing to delusion. Though crack cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream) shoots roughly in handheld 16mm and digital, there’s a refinement to the projection of Nina’s fears in visual terms (there’s that dichotomy again): one swooping shot simulates the depth of 3D.
The camera has a more intimate relationship with Nina than any character in the story: Aronofsky holds in close-ups Portman’s perpetually anguished look, a weak, overwhelmed demeanor that gradually morphs into one of feral, predatory ambition; the director also grabs hungrily at dreamlike effects: dopplegangers, reflections, and the freaky suggestion that Nina’s self-improvement requires molting.
Black Swan is, by definition, a male fantasy about a woman, territory that has been trod more skillfully and empathically by filmmakers like David Lynch and even the socially unpopular Roman Polanski. Still, designed as the passion of Natalie Portman, Aronofsky’s film takes us on a visceral wild ride, scored to Tchaikovsky.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Black Swan pirouettes onto Blu-ray in a Blu-ray + Digital Copy special edition that serves up a fine hi-def transfer. The image accurately recreates the filmmakers' intentions: the film was shot with a combination of 16mm and HD cameras, and while both have their drawbacks in terms of resolution (the former tending to be soft and the latter tending to crush in low light), the Blu-ray presentation maximizes the source for a pleasing image that will be familiar to those who saw the edgy film on the big screen. No ill-advised digital manipulation (like DNR) mars the transfer. Arguably more impressive is the sharp DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix: dialogue is well prioritized, but as anyone who's seen the film will report, it's all about the creepy ambience, much of it provided by the sound design. The immersion is full and effective here, in terms of effects and music.
Bonus features kick off with "Black Swan Metamorphosis" (48:55, HD), a thorough making-of featurette with behind-the-scenes footage and cast and crew interviews aplenty.
"Ballet" (2:33, HD) is a quick promo incorporating interviews with Portman and Aronofsky.
"Production Design" (4:00, HD) finds production designer Therese DePrez and Aronofsky explaining the importance of this key element of the film.
"Profile: Natalie Portman" (3:16, HD) and "Profile: Darren Aronofsky" (2:48, HD) deliver brief interviews, while "Conversation: Preparing for the Role" (3:53, HD) records a chat between Portman and her director. "Conversation: Dancing with the Camera" (1:35, HD) continues the same chat.
Next up is a suite of Fox Movie Channel promos: "Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Natalie Portman" (5:56, SD), "Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Winona Ryder" (2:17, SD) , "Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Barbara Hershey" (3:37, SD), "Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Vincent Cassel" (4:43, SD), and "Fox Movie Channel Presents: Direct Effect, Darren Aronofsky" (6:23, SD).
Rounding out the disc are the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:02, HD); Sneak Peek HD trailers for Casino Jack, Conviction, Never Let Me Go, and Street Kings 2; BD-Live access to the trailer and a two-minute clip from "Black Swan Metamorphosis"; and Pocket BLU smartphone app support, to use one's phone as a remote control and check out the same extras as on BD-Live.
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