Black Swan, the beautiful psycho-drama from acclaimed director Darren Aronofksy, is a stunning descent into madness. Natalie Portman stars as a vulnerable prima ballerina who discovers the true horror isn’t imperfection, but the attainment of perfection. Released on Blu-ray on March 29, the film that earned Portman her first Oscar can now be viewed in all its brilliance from home.
Nina Sayers (Portman) is a fragile woman who has committed her life to the art of ballet. She lives a reclusive existence with her over-bearing and controlling mother, an ex-ballerina herself. Nina doesn’t have much of a life outside of the New York City Ballet, and she is dying for the lead role in the ballet company’s newest project, Swan Lake.
Nina is up against stiff competition for the role. The artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), a border-line abusive slave driver, wants her for the part. But he can only see the white swan in her, and the Swan Queen must be both the white swan and the black swan, both light and dark, innocence and sensuality. Thomas condemns Nina as too weak and innocent, and tries to elicit the sexual, shadowy side of her personality.
As Nina fights for the part, and then fights to keep the part from confident and sensual newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis), she begins a frightening psychological journey to find her darker self. She wants to be perfect; she yearns to be both the innocent and the seductress, and the pressure she puts on her own performance begins to take a toll on her mental state. As she descends into a nightmarish world or jealousy and madness, Nina realizes the true terror is in the attainment of perfection.
Aronofksy has directed and written many noteworthy films, from Requiem for a Dream, to The Fountain. He excels at drawing the audience in with stunning visuals, creating a bizarre but beautiful environment for the story to unfold in. His unique style works wonderfully with this story, given its nightmarish qualities and the first-person perspective into madness. Studying his film oeuvre, the qualities that make Black Swan so mesmeric and beautiful can be identified as typical Aronofsky traits. The signature atmosphere he creates of a kind of fugue reality, and his creation of a dream-like (or nightmarish) state.
The script is well-written, but Aronofsky’s artistic vision is what brought this story to life on the screen. Given the limited budget (though this by no means looks low budget), Aronofsky flexed his creative muscles to bring audiences a film so sleek and visually appealing. The CGI is limited, but extremely effective. I’m impressed with the impact a little gooseflesh can have. Most scenes are like living art, and the addition of ballet dancing itself into the fabric of the film adds to its grace.
Portman certainly earned her Oscar in the role of Nina. She finds the perfect notes of fragility and drive. When she begins coming apart at the seams, audiences can see her moving closer to the edge with every agonized look and panicked glance. Her overbearing mother is played with aplomb by Babara Hershey. Hershey, perhaps channeling some of her own experiences with aging, brings a delicate tragedy to the role.
Cassel is one of my favorite French actors. He plays the artistic director with applaudable cheekiness. He’s difficult to dislike, even as he plays an arrogant and abusive character. His magnetism sells it. Kunis does a competent job as Nina’s nemesis. Her good looks and understated acting kept the role of Lily from feeling too convenient, though her performance didn’t stand out like Portman’s or Cassel’s. Winona Ryder also had a very small role, but I thought she performed better than she has in years. She plays the aging prima ballerina who is on the way out, and she looked and felt the part. I didn’t recognize her at first, and that’s always a good thing.
The graceful and exquisite ballet dancing fueled some of the most moving scenes. Ballet is already a delicate art, like Nina herself, but cut-throat at the same time with ballerina’s striving for predominance. The story line of Swan Lake also mirrors what is happening in Nina’s life, so altogether the ballet adds a great level of metaphor to the film. The soundtrack is classical and sweeping, with some great orchestral movements. There is plenty of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake music, of course, and audiences will remember when they become immersed in the sounds of the film why it is such a classic and timeless ballet.
Seeing a movie this visual and artistic in high def is a must. The dim world of the ballet company comes across a little grainy and shadowy sometimes, and not as crisp as I was expecting. This has a lot to do with how Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique shot the movie (for example, they used 16mm cameras instead of 35mm). This choice creates a softer mood, but don’t expect hard-edged digital clarity. The sound excelled, if the visuals didn’t. The orchestral music sounded clear and tonal, there’s nice movement with it, and the dialogue comes through with plenty of sharpness. Sound is also used quite effectively here and definitely adds to the atmosphere.
As for extras, I’m pretty content with what the Blu-Ray has to offer. What we get is the following:
- Black Swan Metamorphosis (The Making Of Black Swan)
- Theatrical Trailer
- Production Design
- Profile: Natalie Portman
- Profile: Darron Aronofsky
- Conversation: Preparing for the Role
- Conversation: Dancing with the Camera
- Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Natalie Portman
- Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Winona Ryder
- Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Barbara Hershey
- Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Vincent Cassel
- Fox Movie Channel Presents: Direct Effect, Darren Aronofsky
- Sneak Peak
- Live Extras
- Mobile Features
There are two discs, one with the film itself and all the extras, and the other is a digital copy. This convenient disc can be uploaded to you computer or itunes so you can watch the movie on whatever portable device you wish. As for the extras, there are plenty of in-depth interviews with Aronofsky and the cast, some great behind the scenes/making of footage, and even profiles on all the main characters by Fox Movie Channel Presents. The greatest extra is the almost hour-long making-of documentary, Black Swan Metamorphosis. Unfortunately, there is no director’s commentary and it’s a shame as I would have loved to have heard from Aronofsky.
Black Swan is a brilliant film about the fragility of the human psyche and it is a must-see. The extras, despite not having a director’s commmentary, are pretty informative and encompassing. The visuals are on the grainy side, but the mood set by the shadowy texture fit the film’s atmosphere. Overall this one is a very worthy purchase. Buy it on blu-ray if you haven’t already.