Black Swan – Sinks In Its Own Shallow Lake

By Jason A. Hill

Black Swan, USA, 2010

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

black swan ballerina natalie portman movies i didnt getBlack Swan has to be one of the most talked-about films of 2010. You might enjoy this film, but it may be for different reasons than you expect. I give director Darren Aronofsky credit for creating such a provocative and alluring spectacle; it’s all his doing. I don’t think the ballet is any more popular than it was before; the subject matter doesn’t seem to be catching any sort of momentum in pop culture, so why does this film seem to find its way into the middle of so many film conversations?

Aronofsky is known for his psychologically damaged characters, from Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi (1998) to Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) in The Wrestler (2008), these characters equally recognize their faults and fight to regain their sense of importance as much as they fail and self-destruct. Aronofsky has become the leading director of character destructive descent, but with his latest doomed protagonist, he’s stepped away from the reasonable situations that lead people into their own destruction and settled for pure insanity. Black SwanNina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is an up-and-coming ballerina, but she is unstable. Nina’s self-destruction is apparent from the very beginning, from the opening frame of the film, when she is in the midst of a hallucinatory dream. Nina is like part of a train being taken along for the ride; she makes no important decisions in the film and it may have even been the choice of her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), that Nina get involved with the ballet in the first place. Nina anticipates she will be featured more this year, but she is still a star in waiting. She finally gets her chance when her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), replaces his star performer, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), with someone “fresh.” After fumbling her audition and her plea for the lead role, she has a good cry, eats a finger smudge of cake and concedes her defeat to her rival. When she finds out she has, in fact, been picked for the lead role, nothing in her changes. She is still crying at every emotional turn, too afraid to touch herself, to go out and meet boys, to tell her mom off, and still hallucinating. What is wrong with Nina? Is she schizophrenic? Is she manic-depressive?

If you compare Randy from The Wrestler, Aronosky’s previous film, to Nina in Black Swan, there is much character development missing in the latter. We understand Randy’s faults and weaknesses as he recognizes them in himself; he yearns for attention, he needs love, and the only place he feels he can have it is in the ring, where it may cost him everything. He makes that choice willingly. Nina yearns for perfection, but crumbles when she is rejected by her peers; she needs approval, but coils into her own paranoia and accuses the people around her of sabotage. It appears as though this is her own doing, but she is led by strong external forces. Nothing is clear.

At its most basic level, Aronofsky violates the rules of his own story world. We are never sure what is reality with Nina – is she dreaming, hallucinating, or drugged? This gives Aronofsky the ability to introduce any device to advance the story, without his characters finding their own way to resolution. This way he can end the film however he wants without having to submit to pesky logic. At the end I was waiting for Nina to wake up yet again to find herself still in her room, having never left for her grand performance. Her mother has locked her in. She would say something like “It was for your own good,” then the door would burst open and the men in white coats would drag her off, having discovered that it was she who had killed her alternate, Lily (Mila Kunis). But that would be the typical ending to a horror film; this is an art film, remember?

Portman has certainly arrived as a top actress, but her performance in this film is a little overstated. She’s fragile, but it’s only when CGI intervenes that her character truly changes. Nina is a victim from beginning to end, and after a flood of tears she implodes, on cue, but my problem isn’t with Portman’s performance – it’s with Nina. At times I felt I identified with Thomas, the sleazy director: “Stop apologizing!” Because Black Swan is protected by a shield of pretentiousness, it’s hard to criticize it with out being labeled a philistine, but at the same time the human emotions explored by this film are fairly one-sided. Obsession, abuse of power, and paranoia are things we all feel, but it’s not us all the time.

There was no one for me to identify with in this film because everyone is so depraved. Among the choices to guide us through this story are the arrogant slime ball director, the overbearing daughter-fetish mother, and the slut Lily. All we have left is Nina, who is experiencing paranormal activity. I couldn’t connect with her because I didn’t understand the connection between her paranoia and her delusions. I could understand her suspicion of the people around her, not knowing if they were trying to help her out of admiration or hurt her out of jealousy, but nothing in the film explained the visual phenomena she was experiencing. The scene in which Nina makes her transformation into the black swan was dazzling and obviously a delusion, but the effect of these delusions seem to play on the type of thrills one gets from a slasher flick. Many of the techniques here reminded me more of Wes Craven than Federico Fellini. Aronofsky has created a horror film dressed in an artsy veil; people expecting an art film will probably leave the cinema confused. Instead of a high-art piece about the pressures of greatness, we end up with a soapy, melodrama-laden horror film.

Jason A. Hill is the Founder, Owner and Editor In Chief of Movies I Didn’t Get.com. He is a film critic and writer of articles and film reviews covering a variety of genres and film news that have been syndicated to many sites in the film blogosphere. He specializes in independent film in the US and Asia.

For more information please contact Jason at JasonAHill@MoviesIDidn’tGet.com.


18 Comments

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-8991">
    K. Star

    I one hundred percent agree with every word you have written here Jason. Thank you.

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    class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-8992">
    Marla

    This movie was amazing and well put together, overall a masterpiece. This movie is not about ballet or dancing. The only people who can really understand this film are those who understand symbollism and psychology, how the subconscious works. If you don’t understand how the story of the white swan parallels nina’s life then you will be lost.

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-8993">
    Kartik Dixit

    Forget the movie. Forget the story. Natalie Portman’s sheer talent as an actor is worth a watch!

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    class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-8994">
    Sympha

    While I agree with your points here that the emotions conveyed in this movie were unrealistic and over-the-top, in my opinion, you completely missed the point of the movie. I suppose that’s the purpose of this website given its namesake.

    I don’t think the movie is about being realistic or relatable to your every-day Joe. The director in the film, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) spells it out when he is discussing ballet… He says something along the lines that it should transport you to another place. Swan Lake itself is meant to transport you to an impossible yet eerily familiar world of evil sorcerers, magic, and swan-woman hybrids. Black Swan transports you in a similar way, into an uncontrollable life you could never imagine.

    Nina is, indeed, like part of a train being taken for a ride, but so is the audience. And no matter how unrealistic this movie may be, its worth remembering that some lives are uncontrollable to those who live them. Not everybody can “recognize their faults and fight to regain their sense of importance” in real life, so why should they in movies? As sad as it is, some folks in the real world ARE just along for the ride, and they either aren’t given the chance to develop their character, or simply cannot do so due to major psychological issues.

    I have a low tolerance for pretension as well, but in spite of it, I was thoroughly entranced by this movie and Nina’s helpless downward spiral.

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-8996">
    Henrique

    The whole movie is a metaphorical intepretation of what it means to let yourself go and embrace the chaos within you. Every vision, every character and every line are part of this enormous metaphor.
    Nina was a diehard perfectionist and in order to be consumed by chaos she actually had to suffer physical and psychological pain (the chaotic personality, the black swan, was buried deep within her and was just waiting to claw itself out of there, ripping through the barrier of her own perfectionism).
    In the end, she feels the need to “kill” her own perfectionist persona in order to be able to perform as the Black Swan. However, this turns out to be a real act, rather than a metaphorical one.

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    class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-8997">
    Larry Dallas

    Thought thid article would help define the ending a little better considering the ending to be white…however your insight should be deemed uncredible and biased with your continuous use of “I”. Natalie Portman’s acting was pure and the audience was witness to her life. Oscar performances are not meant to connect with an individual. With millions in this world that is the worst arguement that could have ever been conceived. Nice try though…Not.

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-8998">
    Nanette

    I strongly agree with Marla. One needs to examine the powerful symbolism in this film as if interpreting a dream. I experienced this movie as a young woman’s struggle to separate from her mother…to break free of her harsh inner critic; to embrace her emerging sexuality; and to begin to establish an identity as an autonomous, mature woman. Establishing a sense of self required, in part, the integration of the beauty and innocence of childhood, with a sense of independence, passion, and the darker realities of life. Establishing a strong sense of self required a death of sorts of the symbiotic relationship with her mother. I am sure one could discover more and more powerful, intrapsychic themes if approached with symbolism in mind. I invite all who view this movie to think deeper; think symbolism.

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    class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-8999">
    Alex

    The allure of this movie is the fact that we see someone who is essentially pure descend into corruption and madness, and the artfulness in which that is shown is the brilliance of this movie. Here’s a really good review I read that really sums up how good it is.

    **Please do not post links in the comments** You are welcome to post approved links in the forums. Please check with the rules before hand. Thanks! – Rachel Menendez (Comments Moderator)

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-9000">
    Keplyn Cerasaro

    Couldn’t have said it better……left theatre a bit confused….not even wanting to try and think about it. Watching film felt like I was in a horror film….where nothing connected….Now I reflect and agree Portman’s performance was note worthy ; however, her affect and sense of utter madness during the movie became an unpleasant feeling after a while. Do not feel this film is a work of art….it is more horror….because the feelings this film leave one with seem to be more unpleasant than anything. I wouldn’t want to spend two hours of my life again to watch this….it is a bit sick overall.

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    class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-9001">
    Crista Flodquist

    This story was told entirely from Nina’s perspective. She is obviously confused and delusional, so why shouldn’t the audience be? Nina was driving that train and WE were along for the ride. The other characters were just there for Nina to react to. We are not meant to know them or care about them.

    When somebody is as messed up psychologically as she is, she would have no idea which parts of her life are real, which aren’t and wouldn’t see the need to question it. In addition to schizophrenia and bipolar, she has multiple personality disorder. Her anorexia has probably played a role in the deterioration of her mind, otherwise, somebody in her life would have noticed this about her long ago. I’d guess that she’d had the ability to disassociate her entire life, but upon being seduced/raped by the director, the other personality is cemented. This can happen to someone that spends a little too much time in her own mind. She was so isolated, she spent the majority of her life locked inside herself. Her only freedom was her imagination.

    I disagree with you, Jason, in the lacking of character development. True, she is not introspective in the least, but this entire movie was, in fact, character development. She stayed true to her character’s only ambition: to be perfect. She cared about nothing else. She’d been groomed for this since the day she was born. She was only starting to figure out what was happening in the very last scene, but by then, it was too late.

    I thought the ending was perfect. It left you to decide as to whether she dies a beautiful death, or wakes up in a padded room.

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-9002">
    Jorge

    This movie was just absolutely amazing! It leaves you breathless. Its just certain people dont know how to appreciate beauty and art and some people just cant seem to understand or connect with a persons life and madness which is how we live as human beings. This girl nina is trying to pursue perfection you have to face your demons and in order to be perfect you also have to have problems in your life. And in nina’s case insanity in ones psyche. This is all about art and pain with the wrestler and in this case a ballerina. These sports, the athletes have it hard and once they go out there they gave it their all through their pain of physicality. So some people might not see that sadly but it is what it is and I totally disagree with this jason sorry totally disagree with you. HANDS DOWN natalie portman is going to win the Oscar for best leading actress. Good job natalie and to darren aronofsky for bringing something new to the plate in movies which some today are shit.

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    class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-9004">
    The Black Swanista

    My friend told me I had to do this, so this is what I’ll say:

    I get what each side is arguing about, and they all have valid points.

    However, one critic, upon Black Swan’s opening, said something like this: Either fall into the madness, or don’t.

    And I agree with that, if you are along for a strange ride you are, and if you aren’t, then you’ll be arguing the character development, camera shots, and quality till no end.

    I saw it for the dancing, the insanity was just a perk.

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    class="comment byuser comment-author-sbones bypostauthor even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-9005">

    Due to the enormous response to this review, I felt I should add a little more to the conversation.

    The connection to the viewer this film makes is undeniable. I found many parts of the film quite enthralling and I was engaged with it all the way through. BUT, this film is being misinterpreted as something deeper than it is.

    Film is the most sophisticated and explicit form of expression because it can represent all other forms of art. In this case, the ballet. And most will agree, this film is not about the ballet. What’s left is a story and with the kind of power that film welds, there is simply no reason for this vision not to be completely clear. However, the vagueness of a film like this can, and most certainly did, allow the viewer to imprint their own ideas about what Nina was going through and what it meant. I do enjoy films that do this, Donnie Darko comes to mind. I just found the characters in Black Swan too unlikeable to care. Nina doesn’t make sense. I couldn’t buy into a character that is obsessed with perfection and yet so emotionally weak, as well as “crazy.” It’s was like Aronofsky couldn’t decided what he wanted with her, so he chose everything. Perhaps all of this was seen through Nina’s delusions, but why can’t that be more clear? I base most of my analysis of film on the construct of the story. If things are not clear, it’s not a story, it’s just a dream, or nightmare. Dreams and nightmares don’t interest me as much as good stories.

    I just want to thank everyone for reading my review and taking the time to write your comments. Your passionate responses are the reason I started this site. I will always give my honest opinion on the films I see. I will continue to improve my analysis and I welcome your suggestions.

    Thanks!!!!

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    class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-9011">
    egninco

    “At its basic level Aronofsky violates the rules of his own story world. We are never sure what is reality with Nina.” – The entire point is that we are not sure what is reality. It puts the viewer in the mind set of the character, but because she is so unlikeable, we are not controlled by any sense of pity or empathy. I think it is brilliant in that sense. You are able to experience the descent into madness without succumbing to it.

    Also, I don’t understand this overwhelming need some people have to “identify” with a character. That type of obsession seems extremely narcissistic and small minded – only being interested in something that relates to you personally.

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-9012">
    L lopez

    I didn’t realize I was supposed to connect with the movies I saw. This movie was very intense for me the ride of mental illness from the sufferer was tremendous. Having said that I’m guessing this reviewer connected with Happy Gilmore!

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    class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-9059">
    Hans

    I disagree with the author. The transformation into the black swan is not a soapy horror flick; it is the apotheosis of the character, who gives anything she got (i.e. her life) to play the black swan and the final decent into utter madness. Here the real and the rather mad Nina finally meet each other.

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-9599">
    SukieMcqueen

    I understand the movie – i think..
    If you first of all think of ballet – plain ballet dancers.
    Before when the ballet business was a lot stricter a ballet dancer had to follow up to the expectations of the people who were teaching you how to dance. You had to look like this, act like that, weigh this much, be that slim, have a certain height, posture and so on..
    Those who lives up to most of the expectations usually get the role. So the ballet dancers will then eventually compare them self with the other dancers in order to be better than them. Some ballet dancers get’s so obsessed with this that they end up going for on thing and on thing only: perfection. The goal for perfection will for some end up as an obsession. But Nina, has become more than obsessed – she has gotten a mental illness because of her and her mothers struggle towards being the perfect girls. When Ninas mother stopped dancing because of her pregnancy with nina, she expected Nina to continue her struggle towards being perfect. In fact i don’t think Nina has a passion for ballet. She forced to do it by her mother. So then she has her mother and her ballet teachers pushing her. She have danced ballet for her mothers sake since she was a little girl. Notice when she’s on the train in the beginning of the movie (when she is on her way to her ballet session) – she looks sad, like she is about to do something she really doesn’t wan’t to do. But she does it – because she know what will happen if she stops dancing – her mom wouldn’t like it?..
    Mila Kunis’s character i beleave is real.. But.. Because she is new in Nina’s ballet class, and since she already get’s a lot of attention because of her amacing and passionate dancing – Nina becomes paranoid – Thinking she is out to take her “crown”, her role. So she start’s imagining things (more than she used to do before she appeared).. Like when Nina saw her sleeping with Thomas – that was just a part of her imagination – (because that was what her mom said about him – he “had a rumour”.. that he was sleeping around with his student’s to then give them a role.. By imagining that this was happening she would then fall deeper into her imagination of that Lily was out to get her role and the on she probably loves (Thomas). On the other hand Nina is starting to imagine that she really is the black/white swan. Every thing that happens in the play, start’s happening to her – but not for real i think.. It’s only appart of her imagination – her paranoia. Every one is real exept from her evil twin that appears once in a while – this twin is her own made version of the black swan..
    I don’t really know how to explain it, because to movie is kind of complicated… But Her’es another clue: Remember what Thomas said to Nina about Lily : “She’s not FAKING it – It’s real passion”.. Nina on the other hand is faking her passion for ballet for the sake of her mother who (i think will hurt her is she stops being her perfect girl – notice that Nina always becomes paranoid when she comes home turning on the light, searching every room, and then picking up this thing she always take with her to her own room – Maybe to protect herself if her mom notice loss of perfection on her (Her mom will then hurt her?)..
    Ok.. Let’s jump straight to the end.. Nina has fallen in love with Thomas. Or at least she thinks so.. The whole part of her growing wings and feathers – not real.. The part were she stabbed lily was clearly just an illusion because she really stabbed herself – she as i said had become obsessed with this play and “crowned” herself as the white swan – and Lily as the black swan – the person out to get the beautyful perfect white swan.. But then you notice that lily is alive, and Nina had really stabbed herself. (Like the white swan does in the play – she takes suicide.. And Nina who thinks she really is the white swan, takes suicide to. (even though she really did’nt know that she did it toward herself – she thought she stabbed lily, but Lily wasn’t in the same room at that time as Nina imagined – so she really just threw herself into the mirror, to then stab herself when she saw her own reflection in the mirror – which in her crazy head looked like Lily/the black swan.
    Anyhow.. when she in the end is dancing the last chapter – the death scene (and she really is about to die herself) – the only thing she can think about doing before she passes away, is doing that perfect last scene. When she then is about to do the “suicide” jump she notices her mother – and her face become even more serious. – then she falls. Thomas and the other dancers then run towards her to congratulate her to then notice the stab in her tummy area. Before she dies when Thomas is by her side worried sick about her she hears the applause (the people who are applausing for her perfection) then she says something like “i did it. i’m perfect” And then she get’s a hint of a smile in the corner of her mouth – and she’s dead. She had now furfilled her mother’s expectations, and what her teachers expected from her – but most important she did’nt have to worry about being perfect anymore, she did’nt have to live for someone else anymore, no longer did she have to dance ballet something she really did’nt have a passion for. She could finally let go of the obsession – The obsession To be Perfect. She could finally rest.

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    class="comment byuser comment-author-nicole-p odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-10555">

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