Black Swan

The Nominations:

  • Actress in a Leading Role – Natalie Portman
  • Cinematography
  • Film Editing
  • Best Director – Darren Aronofsky
  • Best Picture

The Black-and-White:

A review by moviegirl

This is not a movie for people who love ballet. Or rather, this is not a movie for people who love ballet and are looking to see a movie that is about ballet. It’s not really about ballet.

Plot synopsis from

Nina (Portman) is a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life, like all those in her profession, is completely consumed with dance. She lives with her obsessive former ballerina mother Erica (Hershey) who exerts a suffocating control over her. When artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice. But Nina has competition: a new dancer, Lily (Kunis), who impresses Leroy as well. Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan with innocence and grace, and the Black Swan, who represents guile and sensuality. Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly but Lily is the personification of the Black Swan. As the two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship, Nina begins to get more in touch with her dark side – a recklessness that threatens to destroy her. Written by Fox Searchlight Pictures

One of my favorite movies when I was a young girl was The Turning Point with Anne Bancroft, Shirley Maclaine, and Tom Skerritt as the adults, and Leslie Browne and Mikhail Baryshnikov as the young dancers. That story shared many of the same elements as Black Swan: an aging prima ballerina who was being pushed to retire from the company (Bancroft in The Turning Point; Winona Ryder in Black Swan), a mother of undetermined talent who gave up her dancing career when she found herself pregnant unexpectedly with the film’s heroine (Maclaine in The Turning Point; Barbara Hershey in Black Swan), and a young ballerina hoping to move out of the corps de ballet and become the next star (Browne in The Turning Point; Natalie Portman in Black Swan). Both films also have a pretty rival, a ballet mistress with an accent, and a womanizing artistic director.

That’s really where the similarity ends, unfortunately for me.

Black Swan turned out to be less a movie about ballet in general, or Swan Lake in particular — does anyone in ballet really only use the phrases “Black Swan” and “White Swan” rather than “Odile” and “Odette,” respectively? doesn’t that miss the whole point that Odette and Odile are actually girls, rather than birds? or is that the message of this film? — than a movie about mental illness. The movie ends without any clarity about what events in the film were real and what were just a part of Nina’s delusions.

Indeed, it seems that nearly all of it must have been delusional, starting from the part where Nina wins the role of Odette/Odile. It’s unfathomable that an industry that limps from season to season barely making ends meet would entrust the role of Odette/Odile to someone with so little confidence and presence. There are simply too many strong dancers in any company to believe that someone who did not have the charisma to play both characters would be chosen to headline such a demanding production, no matter how strong she was technically. So I really find the whole premise a little forced and unbelievable, not to mention that the “what is real” setup has been done before and to much more satisfying effect (Brazil, for one).

But rather than go on and on about how much I disliked this movie, and why I would have preferred to leave after about 30 minutes (and, having seen the remainder, believe I would not have missed anything worth missing), I’ll just give my take on how I think it stacks up against the competition in the five categories in which it was nominated.

Portman’s constant pained expression and unfailingly whiny voice was appropriate for her downward spiral into madness and death, but became less and less interesting as the movie wore on. Her one-note performance wasn’t really her fault, but the fault of the script which made her one-dimensional, and completely unsympathetic. In this category, I’ve only seen two other nominated performances, Annette Bening and Jennifer Lawrence, and I think think that Jennifer Lawrence is by far a more nuanced and interesting performance — even though she had a pained expression almost the entire movie as well.

The editing was skillful, particularly given the amount of cutting that needed to be done to interpose the actual dancers with the actors. There was also a lot of handheld, which can be challenging to put together cohesively. But again, even having seen only one other of the nominees in this category, I still don’t think it will go to this film. I don’t have much to comment on about the photography except that it seemed at time too low-contrast, and at other times too blown out, but again perhaps that was on purpose.

Darren Aronofsky’s direction was fine, that is to say that to the extent that all of the characters were stereotypes and caricatures, he did a good job making sure that their performances portrayed those stereotypes and caricatures to their fullest. He did the best with the (deservedly unnominated) script that he had. Still, I would have preferred Aronofsky’s spot to have gone to Debra Granik for her helming of Winter’s Bone (also nominated for Best Picture), particularly given that she was working with so many amateur actors.

As for Best Picture, well, I don’t think it can hold a candle to any of the other nominees, either for story or presentation.

And that’s about all I can muster.

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