Black Swan is a beautifully filmed, splendidly acted, Oscar-winning film from ingenious director Darren Aronofsky. I’m not a fan. I admire various elements of the film but as a whole they leave me cold. I recognize that I’m in the minority on this point, but that doesn’t mean I’m alone. Actually, a fair number of critics and filmgoers have taken issue with Aronofsky’s celebrated new film. Many seem to find star Natalie Portman’s performance a little one-note, or criticize the film for its many similarities to the late Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, a perfect psychological thriller to which Aronofsky reportedly bought the remake rights in order to pay proper homage during a sequence from Requiem for a Dream. These are not my concerns. With Black Swan premiering on Blu-Ray this week I figured this was the perfect opportunity to revisit the film and determine once and for all why I just don’t give a damn about this supposedly four-star drama.
Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a ballerina for a prestigious company putting on a production of Swan Lake. The prima ballerina of old, played briefly but strikingly by Winona Ryder, now qualifies as an ‘old ballerina’ so the company’s director Thomas Leroy (Brotherhood of the Wolf’s Vincent Cassel) searches within his talent pool for a new star capable of playing the wilting flower White Swan as well as her sexually-empowered counterpart the Black Swan. Nina’s got the White Swan part down pat – she’s nothing if not a cowering introvert – but only proves herself capable of Black Swan-ishness after biting Thomas on the lip when he tries to kiss her. Encouraged by her unexpected display of aggression, Thomas gives her the part and thus begins a harrowing journey into the duality of Nina’s nature in which her mind slowly breaks down into warring factions of wide-eyed paranoia and self-destructive erotic fixation. Along the way she fixates on rival ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis), who perfectly encapsulates the vivacity and duplicity of the Black Swan and whose presence makes the parallels to Swan Lake abundantly clear.
As a cinematic depiction of a descent into madness, Black Swan excels. The film’s no-nonsense visual style, chockablock with naturalistic lighting and grainy, oh-so-independent 16mm film stock creates a plausible world that Aronofsky fills with at first subtle hints of madness, and which eventually devolves into absolute nightmarishness by the whirligig climax. Watching the film again, however, I found that the actual story itself does little to match cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s calculated descent into psychosis. The opening of the film depicts one of Nina’s dreams which both foreshadows the plot but also already hints that her mind is unwell, an argument supported by the revelation that she has a history of self-mutilation. Nina’s journey does not begin with the events of Black Swan, and if anything the story itself feels rather incidental. This young woman was destined to go over the edge eventually, clever plot or no.
Stephen King once criticized Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining for just this very purpose, noting that Nicholson’s performance was one of a crazy man who only got crazier rather than what King perceived as the superior horror of a normal man being driven mad. Black Swan has a similar problem, but whereas The Shining still worked because Kubrick spent an equal time with Nicholson’s family, eventually highlighting the impact his protagonist’s madness had on the people around him, Black Swan is completely insular. Portman appears in every scene. The film is told from her completely subjective viewpoint. Without any kind of contrast with reality, or at least the contrary perspective of individuals we can trust to be relatively rational, the film comes across as a brilliant examination of a not-particularly-interesting protagonist, whose problems all seem to boil down to the fact that she needs to lighten up, or possibly just get laid.
Another unexpected parallel to The Shining presents itself in the role of Thomas, here practically playing the role of Stanley Kubrick during the production of his horror opus. Over the course of filming The Shining, Kubrick famously turned antagonistic towards his female lead, Shelley Duvall, driving her to a brilliant performance but also repeatedly to tears. Thomas takes a similar tack with Nina, angrily defying her to overcome her own shyness so that she can finally assume power over her own life as well as the stage. He’s a bit of a letch, sure, but he’s also dogged in his efforts to direct his star to greatness, and rather than simply take his direction Nina takes his lashings to heart and goes thoroughly insane. I find myself more sympathetic with Thomas than the protagonist, whose journey we are clearly supposed to empathize with more. Here, the lack of contrast between reason and insanity is merely paid lip service, setting the film off-balance and turning the relatively simple plot against itself as a supporting character elicits more understanding than the woman within whose mind the story entirely dwells.
But Black Swan has its fans and certainly the fine performances throughout elevate this troubled material even for those who agree with me. The fans will be pleased by the film’s Blu-Ray release from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, which sports an exceptional transfer, rich audio offerings and solid special features.
Visually, Black Swan is not the first disc you’d use to show off your HDTV setup, but it’s a faithful transfer of an intentionally grimy film. Matthew Libatique’s thick grain structure survives the trip to home video, where the effect is present but relatively muted when compared to a full theatrical environment, in which the screen was so busy that it sometimes appeared as if the projection booth was being attacked by a swarm of angry fruit flies. No post-production tinkering appears to have marred the image, resulting in a superb presentation. And although the soundtrack is devoid of the gunfire, explosions and speeding vehicular nonsense that usually displays your surround sound system to the best of its abilities, the track is splendidly mixed and thoroughly immersive.
The special features are mostly short EPK-style documentaries about ballet or Natalie Portman’s performance, but it’s highlighted by a moody, extended Behind the Scenes Feature called Metamorphosis, which provides a thorough look at the production of the film, insightful interviews with the cast and crew and an overall presentation that feels right at home alongside the film it chronicles. This flies in the face of the pre-Menu Screen offerings, which include a jarringly zippy trailer explaining how happy you’ll be to watch a movie you bought in High-Definition on your tiny little phone. At least the trailers are skippable.
Black Swan won Natalie Portman a well-deserved Academy Award and despite my protestations I find it a strong film, albeit not an exceptional one. Many disagree, and for those this Blu-Ray edition of Black Swan comes highly recommended. To those who have not yet seen Black Swan I encourage you to rent this disc and see for yourself if it’s the slightly overrated three-star movie I found, or indeed a new classic that you simply have to own.
Crave Online Rating (Film): 7 out of 10
Crave Online Rating (Blu-Ray): 8 out of 10