Black Swan

Natalie Portman shines yet again in Darren Aronofsky's dance-world shocker.


Darren Aronofsky's wonderfully creepy Black Swan bears less resemblance to a lyrical ballet movie of old, like The Red Shoes, than it does to the crack-up classic, Repulsion. Roman Polanski's 1965 film dealt with an isolated young woman in the grip of sexual hysteria and psychological disintegration. Aronofsky's protagonist, a heavily repressed ballerina named Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), is similarly unstable, and as in the earlier picture, we view her mental collapse from her own delusional perspective. The movie has some shaky plot points and an underdeveloped key character—it's not entirely satisfying; but it's infused with the director's usual creative brio, and it has a great dark gleaming look. It's an ambitious shocker, and it's hard to imagine anyone other than Aronofsky (almost) pulling it off.

Portman's Nina is a dancer with a Lincoln Center company that could be the New York City Ballet (one of whose members, Benjamin Millepied, choreographed the elegant dance sequences in the film). Nina still lives with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer who sacrificed her own career to raise her child and is now, in traditional fashion, living out her lost dreams through her daughter. But Nina's career seems stuck: After several years with the corps de ballet, she has yet to win a featured role. Then, in the midst of preparing a modernized version of Swan Lake, the company's creative director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell), decides to "retire" his aging prima ballerina, Beth Mcintyre (Winona Ryder), and, after close observation, to replace her with Nina. It's a contingent decision, though—Thomas admires Nina's technical perfection as a dancer, but feels she still lacks the inner fire necessary for stardom. He drills her relentlessly to merge with her new role. "Lose yourself," he tells her. Nina, a fragile personality to begin with, takes his command rather too much to heart.

The movie cleverly models its storyline on that of Swan Lake itself. Nina must dance the part of the White Swan, a vision of purity, and also that of the Black Swan, her sensuous double. When Nina's own Black Swan, a dark beauty named Lily (Mila Kunis), joins the company, Nina becomes convinced that the newcomer is after her role. Where Nina's life is consumed by ballet, Lily is an urban party girl, at home with drink and drugs and wild sex, and she draws Nina into her lurid orbit. Lily may be more than Nina's rival; she could be her downfall.

Eeriness seeps into the story slowly. We notice a strange abrasion on Nina's back at one point; and when she walks past a wall filled with portraits, we see the eyes in one of the faces slowly start to move. Her mother becomes an increasingly disturbing presence; and there's a repulsive encounter in a subway, and a scene in a hospital that's pure Guignol. Meanwhile, Thomas is becoming a problem: Is he trying to loosen her up for her big performance—or is he coming on to her? "Sex—do you enjoy it?" he asks. "We need to be able to talk about this." Receiving no positive response, he tells her, "Go home, touch yourself—live a little." As the big night approaches, and Nina's world begins to fragment in ever more alarming ways, we wonder if she can escape the fate of the White Swan she plays in the ballet.

Natalie Portman gives one of her most compelling performances in this film, which is saying something. She navigates her character's mental decline—and some boldly-staged sex scenes—with supreme confidence. (She also did most of her own dancing, which is captured with customary hand-held finesse by Aronofsky's regular cinematographer, Matthew Libatique.) It's unfortunate that Vincent Cassel's character isn't more fully worked-out—this powerful actor really needed more to bite into. And the picture's conclusion leaves some questions distractingly unanswered. Still, Black Swan isn't like any other movie you're likely to see this year. Which could be reason enough to see it.  

Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.

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  1. This is the only movie you’ll ever see Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis make out in.

    Take my $10.00. Please.

    1. Why is the coward of AirforceBaseStock working at reason?

      1. U MAD?

  2. “a heavily repressed ballerina whose mental collapse the audience views from her own delusional perspective.”

    Wait… what?

  3. So, no car chases and explosions?

    Boy……I think Ima have to pass on this one. At least The Professional and that Star Wars movie she was in had gunfights and stuff.

    1. “This is the only movie you’ll ever see Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis make out in.”


      1. Seriously – no homo…

        1. It’s only homo if ur a girl

          1. I support gay marriage if both chicks are hot. Get the t-shirt.

  4. Nice to see Darren has bounced back from the poor reception of The Fountain. I’m one of the four people on the planet who liked that film. I like everything he has done, although I haven’t gotten around to watching “Below”.

    1. Below was directed by David Twohy (The Arrival, Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick), and is actually pretty damn good, like most of Twohy’s work.

    2. The Fountain is a very underrated movie. Maybe it was the victim of being mis-marketed, I seem to recall the ads and trailers talking about “A Love That Spans Centuries” when really the movie is about a guy trying to come to terms with death.

    3. The Fountain was amazing. I loved it.

    4. Oh my god, I loved The Fountain!

      1. I also enjoyed The Fountain: It reminds me of two other underrated flicks that show it’s possible to make good sci fi: Sunshine and Solaris.

    5. I REALLY liked The Fountain, so I guess that makes 5 of us – that’s 25% more positive reviews than expected! Heh!

    6. I guess I am one too…I wonder who the other 2 are?

  5. I like Aronofsky, but I didn’t like what I saw in a preview recently. I doubt I’ll see it in the theater, but will grab it on Netflix.

  6. I hope this is better than The Wrestler, which I found slightly overrated.

    As far as Natalie Portman goes, she’s a pretty gal and I am guessing a good actress (based on what everyone says). But I have to admit, there’s some irrevocable damage in my perceptions of her from both Episodes I-III and Garden State.

    I want to say she didn’t even try and act in the Star Wars disasters, but frankly no one’s that bad without being told to be that bad (I can see George Lucas between takes…”I’m thinking of wood, could I get more of a 2×4 stiffness here?”). But directed that badly or not, I can almost see Portman mouthing “Where’s my check? This better not bounce, nerds.”

    Garden State just blows. Its less believable than the Star Wars crap. I mean, how many weird, socially repressed girls are out there who also are perfect 10’s? I’ll buy hyperspace and lightsabers-is-real before I buy that. Plus every time I see Zach Braff or whatever his name is my trigger-finger itches, just something about that smarmy schmuck that makes my body scream for Badal (for all the sandboxers out there).

    So maybe my Natalie Portman bad impressions are other peoples fault, but what can you do…I hope this one’s decent.

    1. I recommend the 2004 “Closer,” for which NP was justly nominated for an Oscar. (Not that that’s always of guarantee of anything…)

    2. I think everyone who is associated with the last three Star Wars movies is irrevokeably tainted. And yeah, Garden State is awful. Another is the hundreds of “beautiful chick can’t get a date and is sweet but nuerotic and lovable” genre. Fucking awful. And Portman got into movies on her looks. She is beautiful ban’t can’t act and hasn’t acted since she was 11 in The Professional.

      1. The Professional – still her best work. She was Unbelievably GOOD in that.

        And I think she was 12…11, 12, Unbelievably GOOD acting…

      2. I agree Garden State was a steaming pile of shit.

      3. agreed, 100%. Can’t tell you how many guys I have to straighten out and tell that she’s a bad actress. However, if she’s kissing Mila Kunis, well, okay, I think i can wait until DVD.

    3. By being not utterly wretched, merely lifeless, she was actually one of the better things about Eps I-III.

  7. I hope this is more than a Repulsion rip-off. The Wrestler was poorly written dreck. Crappy “gritty” 16mm cinematography too.

  8. Wow – can’t wait.

    Haven’t seen Portman since ‘V’ and their battles against Bush/Cheney style totalitarianism/fascism.

    Preferred her in ‘Closer’ though. She let her hair down.

    1. As opposed to Shrike style fascism.

    2. Go home. Touch yourself. Live a little.

    3. V was a terrible mashup of Phantom of the Opera meets A Clockwork Orange, stealing the least interesting parts of both then thrown through a 1984 blender. It was a personal act of vengeance masquerading as social justice. It did, in fact, suck balls. Although Portman’s acting was fine.

      1. WTF is wrong with “libertarians” these days?

        Why do they reflexively jump to the defense of patro-fascists?

        (Its cool, you guys. Its the Mel Gibson Gawd thing. Its a GREASE thingy – I understand.)

      2. An English friend of mine complained about her ‘1950’s upscale London accent’, and I replied, ‘if only all your gals sounded like that.’

      3. And you still give it too much credit.

        1. I have to keep it under 5 sentences, lest it become a ‘commander’ style 1000 word rant complete with randomly capitalized words and orphaned punctuatation marks.

  9. You prefer Obama/Chicago style totalitarianism/stalinism?

    1. As a matter of style, actually, yes. But for positive outcomes, not so much.

  10. I’m shocked at myself for wanting to see this, and I’m glad to see a positive review that might push me to that point.

  11. When I first read about this movie last Spring, I had to check the date for April 1. Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman nekad, making out in a movie directed by Aronofsky? Too good to be true.

  12. I just read a piece on how hard Mila Kunis worked on this movie and it truly gave me a lot of respect for her dedication and professionalism. I hope she’s does well in it. I love her in Family Guy but does anyone notice that her Meg “voice” is exactly how she sounds in her real life and everyday conversation? She seems to take acting very professionally and I think that’s great.

  13. This may have been one of her most compelling performances, but her absolute most compelling performance was her rap song.

  14. Loder’s review makes me think it’s like Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, unanswered questions and all.

    That’s actually the film I’ll probably be judging it against.

    1. In fact, the more I think about it, just from the description?

      The more I wonder if The Black Swan‘s debt to The Piano Teacher isn’t something like what The Lion King owes to Kimba*.

      The parallels are a little too similar from the description–color me prejudiced on this. I’m not saying Hamlet can’t be done well in more than one way, but just so you know? Without even having seen it, it sounds like a reworking of The Piano Teacher


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  16. eee ooo iiii jawww

    1. at the risk of cliche: LOL

  17. You had me at “boldly-staged sex scenes”.

  18. When I first saw the preview for this I thought it looked like the creepiest ballet movie since Suspiria.

  19. From the commercials I was thinking Single White Female in toe shoes.

  20. it’s Art…the guy with no arms and no legs hanging on the wall.

  21. Sounds like another heaping dose of Hollywood pretentious garbage. Black Swan should be re-named Burnt Turkey.

    Who cares if two hollywood wacko actresses make out. Been there, Seen it before. Move along nothing to see!

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