Black Swan (2010)
By: Stuart Giesel on May 2, 2012  | 
Fox (USA) | Region A | 2.40:1, 1080p | English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 | 108 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, John McLaughlin
Country: USA
External Links
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I never thought I'd see a ballet film. I mean, Martin Scorsese's always banging on about how brilliant The Red Shoes is, but still, the very thought of watching ballet in any form was, to me, as exciting a proposition as watching a Michael Bay-directed remake of Seven Samurai with Justin Bieber in the Toshiro Mifune role. That is, until I watched Black Swan. And holy hell, what a film. Black Swan is less a film about ballet than an Apocalypse Now-style descent into madness with some Cronenbergian body horror and a touch of Dario Argento thrown in the mix.

Let it be said, however, that the Michael Bay remake of Seven Samurai with Justin Bieber is still a horrible, horrible idea.

Director Darren Aranofsky is not exactly known for his feel-good pics, and much like The Wrestler - which had an equally brilliant and self-destructive central performance - this isn't exactly the stuff of Pixar. Apparently The Wrestler and Black Swan were meant to be a single film at one point, and you can see the similarities.

Nina Sayers, an up-and-coming dancer in a New York ballet company, is desperate for the lead role in director Thomas Leroy's (Vincent Cassel, slimy yet magnetic) revisioning of the classic Swan Lake. The company's former star Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) is too old. Despite stiff competition, Nina gets the role, despite Leroy's reservations that she can pull off the black swan part of the role (she is technically proficient at the white swan, but apparently for the black swan role you have to get a bit mental). Nina becomes obsessed with perfecting the role, and two people are making her life particularly difficult: a new dancer to the company played by Mila Kunis who Nina believes wants her role, and Nina's overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey).

Things get pretty bonkers when Nina starts seeing things like her face on other people, or scratches and blood on her body one moment and nothing the next. Despite the pressure, Nina insists that her debut performance as lead will be perfect, one way or another.

You can look for hidden meaning in all of this, or how Aranofsky's tried to implement reflections and/or mirrors in every scene, or how much of what Nina experiences is real and how much is in her head. But to get too clinical about the film defeats its purpose. You don't really watch Black Swan as experience it.

It's not often a horror film gets nominated for a Best Picture Oscar by the traditionally stuffy Academy; the only other one I can think of at the top of my head is The Exorcist and, I suppose, The Silence of the Lambs. And make no mistake, Black Swan is a horror film. Of course, the damn thing didn't win (neither did True Grit, The Fighter, Inception or The Social Network over the eventual yawnsome choice, The King's Speech). All I can say is the accolades and awards that Black Swan did win, including Natalie Portman's stunning Oscar-winning performance as the fragile yet destructive Nina Sayers, were well deserved. Aranofsky obviously is a guy who gets the best out of his actors - think Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream, one of the finest performances in decades, or Mickey Rourke's career-best turn in The Wrestler. Portman's showed some range before, but nothing like this. Like Rourke's washed-out wrestler, Portman is damaged goods, pushing her body to the limit and her flaws are shown warts-and-all. And all the fuss about how much of the dancing she did in real life is a moot point: she won an Oscar for acting, not dancing.

The rest of the cast is equally good. Barbara Hershey is especially twisted as the controlling mother, and you get hints that the relationship is a little... icky. Mila Kunis hasn't as much of a role, but does extremely well (and, of course, there's that much-publicised lesbian sex scene between her and Portman for the pervs, but it's not exactly erotic so much as ominous). And Vincent Cassel's always excellent in anything he does, the prick.

Beautifully shot, scored and edited, Black Swan could be criticised for being too overdone, too grandiose, too unsubtle. So what? Are the Transformers films the only ones that can go OTT? Black Swan relishes the opportunity to go balls-out over-the-top where other films would have played it safer. And it's all the better for it. I was blown away when I saw it in the cinema. Right from the start we know there's something wrong in the world of Black Swan, and the tension slowly grows from there like an itch you can't scratch. The performances, the cinematography, the sound and the editing gradually build, culminating in an audacious final twenty minutes that left me practically breathless. Admittedly, there are a couple of cheap scares (but also a sublime one at a most inopportune time for Nina) but that hardly matters when the rest of the product is so brazen and compelling.

A fascinating companion piece to The Wrestler about the limits performers will go both mentally and physically, Black Swan coaxes career-best performances from the cast and lathers on some old-school horror to produce a bold and unforgettable descent into madness.
On initial appearance the excessive amount of grain might suggest a transfer gone wrong, but in truth the Blu-Ray quality is superb, beautifully reproducing Aranofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique's aims for the film's visual style. The detail levels are terrific and blacks are nice and deep. It's got a semi-documentary feel to it without that annoying "shaky-cam" effect that a lot of hack directors are fond of using since the success of the Bourne movies. Visually speaking, there's nothing to complain about here, that's for sure.
Crank this mother up and you're sure to get consumed by the excellent sound design that amps up as Nina's mind starts to fragment, balanced beautifully with excerpts from Swan Lake and Clint Mansell's excellent score. Even though it's not a triple-A action title, the Blu-Ray is perfect for showing off your home cinema.
Extra Features
The Blu-Ray has a buttload of special features, mostly making-of features. Unfortunately there's no audio commentary by Aranofsky, which might have been fascinating.

Black Swan metamorphosis: Clocking in just under an hour, this is an in-depth look at the making of Black Swan, covering script and casting through to the visual design and effects. Probably the best feature on the disc.

The featurettes Ballet and Production Design give a bit more background info, but nothing terribly informative. The Profile: Natalie Portman and Profile: Darren Aranofsky featurettes don't unveil anything fans won't already know about these two, and they mostly rehash info from other features, anyway.

Conversation: Preparing for the Role and Conversation: Dancing for the Camera involve Portman and Aranofsky discussing exactly those topics, funnily enough.

There are five Fox Movie Channel Presents featurettes on the characters played by Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel and Winona Ryder, as well as one on directing with Darren Aranofsky. Odd that there wasn't one with Mila Kunis, but there you go. The featurettes are pretty meh.

There is also a trailer for Black Swan and for other movies that aren't as good.

The features provided on Live Extras were not able to be reviewed because I don't have Internet to my Blu-Ray player. I daresay I haven't missed anything earth-shattering.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
One of the best films of 2010, Black Swan is a low-budget arthouse ballet drama with a sinister, almost malignant core. It's a horror film at heart, and though there's not as much blood as in your standard slasher, there are enough "ewww" moments to put most viewers on edge. Creepy, unsettling and audacious, and fuelled by superb performances, it just might be Aranofsky's best.

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