For the first time in his career, Darren Aronofsky directed a hit film. All the more strange, he did it with a tale about a ballet dancer. Black Swan stars Natalie Portman – who won an Oscar for her efforts – as Nina Sayers, the dancer picked for the lead role in Swan Lake. The director (Vincent Cassel) knows she can play the more innocent white swan, but does she have the passion/evil/freedom/aggression to play the black swan, the evil doppelganger? Perhaps with some help from the more sexually suggestive dancer Lily (Mila Kunis). Hit the jump for my review of Black Swan on Blu-ray.
Nina is called in to replace Beth (Winona Ryder), ballet Prima Donna who’s now going into retirement. Nina’s mom (Barbara Hershey) is both supportive and negative to her about this – this is what Nina’s been training for her entire life, but her mother is a stage mother. But as Nina works harder and harder, her grip on reality gets tenuous. She envisions herself behaving inappropriately, and that her body is mutating into something else. Will she be able to get through a performance?
Black Swan works on a number of levels. First and foremost it works as a fairy tale. As such, when Portman plays the meek Nina versus the freed performer, there’s a sense that this too is an extreme – but perhaps the more believable one. But Swan doesn’t seem anchored to reality, and reading it literally is a fool’s errand. As a writer, what I loved about the film is that it’s about the schizophrenia of inhabiting a creation that is both you and not you. To create a villain effectively requires thinking like a bad person – whether that person thinks they’re bad or not – but for Nina that process becomes a form of sickness. And when the film ends, Nina is wounded, but if we look at that metaphorically, we can see that Nina has penetrated herself.
There’s also the film as the film, but then the film as a commentary on its performers. Natalie Portman is playing a gamine, and the actress is known for playing queens (at least for George Lucas) and relatively innocent characters (even when playing a stripper in Closer) – we’ve typed her as such partly because she emerged as a child actor, which gives an audience a sense of protectiveness. But the film is about her replacing Winona Ryder, who filled a similar role in cinema two decades ago, and her mother is Barbara Hershey, who had those sorts of roles three decades ago. And Portman’s character is challenged by Mila Kunis, an actress who is now getting cast in A-list titles (and with her upcoming Friends with Benefits is doing the exact same movie that Portman did with No Strings Attached). I don’t think this necessarily comments on the film, but it definitely informs it.
Black Swan fits in perfectly with Aronofsky’s other films, and to that it may be the most positive iteration of this narrative. In pursuit of perfection, his lead characters often destroy themselves, and this fits with that, but this feels more loose and fun (though there have been playful elements before), and this is the most accessible of his films. Part of that is how he contorts Portman, who’s often wearing sheer clothing, and has two sex scenes. But as with what I said before, he also understands the competitive nature of some women, and the film plays on that.
Portman’s performance is pretty great once the innocent act is revealed to be partly dressing. Her award win strikes as being for how obvious it was that she was dedicated to the part, and because of the dancing, but also because she suffers on screen. Award season loves masochism. But this is one of her best performances, and who really gives a fuck how much or little of the dancing she did? The magic is on screen.
Twentieth Century Fox’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Surround. Immaculate transfer, though the aesthetic of the movie is of a grainy 16mm sort. The film also comes with a digital copy. The supplements start with a three-part making-of called “Black Swan Metamorphosis” (49 min.) which offers a behind the scenes look at the making of the film that’s very honest. There are also sections on the behind-the-scenes work called “Ballet” (3 min.), “Production Design” (4 min.) and “Costume Design” (4 min.). This is followed by profiles of Portman (3 min.) and Aronofsky (3 min.), and a conversation between the two about “Preparing for the Role” (4 min.), and “Dancing with the Camera” (2 min.). There’s also five Fox movie channel conversations with Portman (6 min.), Ryder (2 min.), Hershey (4 min.), Cassel (5 min.) and Aronosfky (6 min.). The film’s theatrical trailer and bonus trailers are also included.