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Black Swan (2010)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Is the film worth your time?

Black Swan is dark, difficult, nuanced, intense, and strong. Searching the performer’s heart, the film finds joy and confusion, confidence and fear, passion and reserve, freedom and bondage, competitiveness and timidness. At the same time, Black Swan explores the nature of growing into one’s potential, especially as a top-tier performer, asking about innocence, aggressiveness, inhibitions, discipline, perfection, and control. Key questions asked by the film include: What feeds true creative genius? What constitutes true artistic perfection? What battles do we fight to achieve greatness as an artist? What compromises are necessary for success? How do we struggle against both real and imaginary foes, and can we always tell the difference? These questions have been explored in film before, yet Black Swan makes a worthy addition to the canon.

Natalie Portman’s lead performance is superb, as is Darren Aronofsky’s direction and tone for the film. Certainly it is a thriller, and its intensity makes a case for also calling it a horror film. Some have said that Aronofsky overindulged — yet I find the intensity to be appropriate for the film’s work of making the invisible visible. The critique of excess is especially laid upon Black Swan’s sexual content. I can understand this view, but I find it to be a reaction based on content alone without considering context in the film. The film chooses sexuality as a metaphor and a prime example as it pursues questions of passion and inhibition. It posits a question of whether and how discipline and control kill passion. This is a worthy question, and it’s easy to draw content-only conclusions about the film’s answer. Yet close attention to what lines are and are not crossed in the film will show that Black Swan is actually restrained in its treatment of the issue, and that the film’s content, in a sense, baits those who are quick to conclude otherwise.

The film is very much worth the time — indeed it will likely take more than one viewing to catch all it is doing — but it is certainly not for all. Black Swan asks a lot of its viewers. It demands very close attention, from open to close, all the while sorting through what matters most and tying loose ends together — not too mention experiencing, shall we say, certain visual challenges. Finally, it requires us to keep processing after the film has closed, asking and reflecting and searching for what we can take away. For those that see the film, considering these provisos, Black Swan is a rich film.

Ballet dancer Nina Sayers has worked long and hard perfecting her craft, admiring the work of Beth Macintyre, the lead dancer in the company. Lately, though, the company has fallen on hard times, and its choreographer, Thomas Leroy, decides to make some notable changes. Beth must retire and a new lead must take her place. The opening production of the season will be Swan Lake — but with a twist. The white swan and the black swan will be performed by one dancer, not two as usual, requiring an extensive range of creative interpretation and passion. Is Nina the one for the part or will another get it? How far will her dedication to perfection take her? Running time: 108 min.

Make no mistake: Black Swan has tough content, starting with blood and gore. Tension and peril run high throughout the film, strong and sexual language are frequent, alcohol and drugs are used in a bar scene. Sexual themes are strong, although there is technically no actual nudity. Thus, although sexual scenes are moderately played as to nudity, the activity is quite clear. Although the filmmakers could have played these scenes with less intensity, I find their portrayal to be reasonable given the depths to which the film explores its issues.

  • Director: Darren Aronofsky
  • Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin from story by Andres Heinz
  • Leads: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
  • Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
  • Music: Clint Mansell

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