Best Picture Profile: Black Swan

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Mark Heyman (screenplay), Andres Heinz (story and screenplay), John McLaughlin (screenplay)

Company: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Cross Creek Pictures, Protozoa Pictures, Phoenix Pictures

Runtime: 108 minutes


The film is about Nina Sayers, an intensely dedicated ballerina working in a company whose star dancer is unfortunately going to retire anytime soon because of her age.

With a new season coming, he manager of the company decides  do the classic ballet Swan Lake. He now starts the search for the ballerina that suits perfectly with the Swan Queen – a role that requires a person to embody two roles, the innocent and kid White Swan, and the sexually potent Black Swan. Nina has the qualities that make her the right choice for the White Swan, but she is having a hard time in getting the Black Swan role right. Now, a new dancer in the company, Lily, gets the manager’s attention and often gives a comparison with Nina and Lily – Nina has the skills and the technique, almost reaching perfection, but she does not have the flowing naturalism and grace that Lily has. This depresses Nina.

Unexpectedly, though, Nina was chosen to become the Swan Queen. As she started her vigorous practices for the role, her psychological incapacity and immaturity also starts to take it all from her – she starts to actually be the Swan Queen in her own way, leading to tragedy after tragedy.

The direction is fearlessly twisted, a total tour-de-force.

In every single moment of the film, you know that it’s guided by a very clear path, but the path itself is adorned by intrepid details filled with surprises and knowledge that he movie was able to breathe life in its own. He shamelessly shows off when needed and holds back when asked to – in short, the direction gets things right. He understands what is happening in every situation of the film, and even if the screenplay loses a bit of its logic, the director pushes the limits, taking risks after risks, and the result is a ravishingly daring work. It rips through the heart of each scene and devastates the audience with the storm of emotions blazing throughout the course of the film. And even in the film’s quieter scenes, the staggering effect of the direction is never left off. It’s almost as if the direction was furious and roaring, but it still has the big amount of confidence and assurance that the project is not lost, cinematically speaking. The result? Simply fantastic.

If the direction pushed the boundaries, the screenplay throws them out of the window. The story is set in a nice way, but each scene constantly drives out the sense of logic in ourselves, more so when the film plunges into the psychosis of the character. This may seem like a frustrating thing for some, but it was quite effective, if not totally outstanding. Truth be told, the screenplay is not necessarily that of high-caliber, and sometimes, there are moments when it goes either too obvious in its intentions, like the “what happened to my sweet girl?” scene between Nina and her mother. The scene conveys transformation, and there it goes – it came a bit too obvious for the screenplay. In this case, I can say that the screenplay is the least impressive part of the film. But who cares? It provides the material which is effortlessly controlled by the direction. It’s like the  film isn’t really a screenplay film anymore. So does this mean that the screenplay is bad? No. The events actually are arranged in a very interesting way, but the dialogue, the words – they’re neat at best.

The cinematography is earth-shatteringly fantastic. There isn’t anything in every frame that I loved. Every shot felt right, every angle felt unchangeable, every move felt well-thought of. The handheld camera style used in this film could have been so exhausting to look at. Instead, what we have is a story that feels told in a very exciting and fresh way, and a lot of that, you can owe to the cinematography. Just as the film is relentless, so is the camerawork that fascinatingly produces the heightened tension in the film. And the dance scenes – the camera simply makes you dance with Natalie Portman in every dance scene she is in. There was a danger that the said technique could be overused, but the product is nothing short but brilliant.

The editing is mindblowing. It glues each shot with the perfect precision of events, helping further establish the dizzying nature of the lead character. There is rhythm in every cut, but there is also an impending build-up of danger that’s continuously lingering in the film. And not to mention the fact that the editing was the one who cohesively made the plot continuously moving in spite of some flaws in the logical essence of the story. With the editing, the film goes up to a higher level of filmmaking unlike any other film this year. The editing reaches the potential power that it can achieve to serve the story the life it has. When it’s low-key, the film manages to create an atmosphere of dread even in the simplest of scenes. When it needs to show off, the film does it with uncanny prowess and technique.

The sound rings true in its fair share of making the story as accessible as possible. The story is intense madness, and the Nina experiences that, and it overwhelms her, leading to her inner turmoil. What else can you add to create the madness other than having ace lensing and startling editing? Throw in the fully effective sound. Every sound that rings off already says something on what might happen to her, but it was never obvious or obtrusive.

The music is amazing. The film utilized pieces of music from the classic ballet Swan Lake, then gave it its own kick of creativity through the amazing Clint Mansell. There is the operatic beauty to crave for, musically speaking, but it never forgets the real usage of the music in this film, and that is for the music to heighten the peril of the situation. When it’s at its most pacified, the music paints the different dimensions of Nina with each note of the music. As the need for the music escalates, the film unleashes the music like a monster, having a personality of its own, owning every second of the film’s most bizarre moments. And the ending is music heaven – the epic feeling, combined with the rapid ascend of music to emotional destruction, is pure genius.

The visual effects and make-up showcases what appears to be a fine line between reality and fantasy. There’s no single scene in the film where either of the two failed – whether it be the nail scenes or the transformation scene – everything looked so real. The costume design may have pushed the good versus evil allegory a bit too much, but they are nonetheless very illustrative. The art direction of the film is in complement with each character, showing their personality and their psychology in their surroundings.

The costume design also add depth in the shading of the character. I’m not really speaking of the ballet costumes, which are undeniably great, but those clothes that they wear when they are at home, when they practice, when they go out – all those tiny details are well-delivered by the costumes. Even the slow-burning metamorphosis of the lead character is played well by the design.

The art direction is also impressive. Maybe, the only flashy parts of the art direction are Nina’s bedroom and the stage itself, but after looking much deeper and after seeing how they actually did it, it is even more impressive because the mysterious aura that the film already has is also anchored in the design. Even the wallpaper used, or the flowers placed, or the mirrors placed almost everywhere, all adds up in the film’s over-all look.

The performances ranges from very good to simply MINDBLOWING.

Mila Kunis is powerfully deceiving as the sexy and graceful rival ballet dancer Lily. Her eyes do a lot of the work, but it’s in her entire body language that convincingly draws the blurry reality of her character.

Barbara Hershey is terrifying as the overprotective mother of Nina. There is a blazing amount of underlined unstableness in her that is unsettling and thrilling to watch. She can be the dearest mother that one can ever have, and in a snap, she can be a child’s worst nightmare. There is this psychological shift that is smooth but also abrupt, and the result is powerful.

Vincent Cassel is sly as the sexually overwhelming company manager Thomas. His lines are somewhat too self-explanatory, but he still delivers them with the ease and confidence that it requires. The delivery with a bit of dictation and spontaneous, but it actually suits the character very well. There are a lot of contrasts in his character, but the most vivid is the doubt that he can bring in the scene but also accompanying it with assurance to the character.

Winona Ryder is also good as the newly retired prima ballerina Beth. There is tremendous danger in her every move, as if she is ready to stab you with a knife. There is the mysterious intensity that validates the reason why everyone is talking about her when she committed self-destruction. However, like the Swan Queen in the film, she also has the fragility of the role. She is not amazing, but boy, did she do justice to the role.

Natalie Portman brings what might be one of cinema’s best performances ever. Her intensely shattering creation of a child-like girl undergoing the tragic metamorphosis for her to own the role that she ever wants is simply fantastic.

Her “White Swan” scenes are played with the ethereal feel to it. It may have looked fake if other actress will do this, but because of the perfect casting for this movie, she simply nails it. There is the touch of immaturity that is ever-present in her. It feels like she has really been pampered that much by her mother. With those few scenes alone, Portman was already able to give a full background on the character by just giving a few hints in it. Also, her frustrated dancing behaviour feels very authentic.

In contrast to that, her “Black Swan” scenes are simply compelling and must be seen to be believed. She does something that is really hard to get – combining the child in the White Swan with full grace and the overflowing devilish sex inside the Black Swan with power and potency without neglecting the White Swan but at the same time, never letting the Black Swan be forgotten. Of course, there are parts where you can tell whether she is the White or she is the Black, but there are really startling moments in the film where the fine line between the two just completely blurs and all you have to do is simply watch. There is the powerful struggle that she undergoes in some scenes, when she embraces the Black Swan in her but her White Swan is still trying to win over her. It’s simply amazing.

Powerful scenes like her nail cutting by herself, being undressed by her mother, being scolded by Thomas after being so weak, saying to Beth her regrets and apologies, dancing for the first time the Black Swan, dancing away from the stage after making a mistake, and the revelation scene are only some of the scenes that are so well-done by Portman that you just get absorbed by it.

In my opinion, if I am going to cast this hell of a role, I would not have considered Portman, at least immediately. I definitely think she is a limited actress, and I even think that she did not deserve her first nomination for Closer, but here is a spellbinding work from a limited actress that was able to get hold of a once-in-a-lifetime role that fits her perfectly.

This film may have its own share of limitations, but who cares? Who damn cares, by the way? If you have this wonderful film composed of virtuoso work of everyone involved, those minor glitches in the film are so easy to forget. It’s powerful movie experience that is simply puzzling, mind-boggling, and simply haunting.

For this, the movie gets:

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