Movies

10 Critical Thoughts About… Black Swan

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Highly specific observations on Natalie Portman's ballet-themed psychological thriller.

Natalie Portman in Black Swan

Black Swan is a suspenseful psychological drama set in the high-stakes world of New York ballet. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a shy but determined dancer playing the lead role in Swan Lake. She's a natural fit as the White Swan, but the part also requires her to play the Black Swan, which causes some trouble.

1. Ready, set, squirm!
The queasiness occurs early and often. Ripped nails, inhuman injuries, drunk Winona Ryders — there's a lot of unsettling imagery, giving your head many chances to acquaint itself with your date's shoulder.

2. Natalie Portman haters, prepare to be silenced.
A lot of people get up in arms about Natalie Portman. This small but dedicated army accuses the actress of being boring or bland or uninteresting. But guess what? None of those synonyms apply here. No matter what vivid insanity Aronofsky has going on around Portman, she still manages to command your attention.  

3. The sex is insane (and not in a good way).
Nina is a tightly wound woman in a tightly wound movie, so you'd hope she could at least blow off some steam in the bedroom. But alas, her situation only worsens when she gets laid. The sex scene here isn't as disturbing as the ones in, say, Antichrist or Irreversible, but it's still probably enough to dissuade you from sleeping with ballerinas, at least for a while.

4. Yes, Aronofsky still loves stalking characters with his camera.
Print out a picture of the back of Natalie Portman's head, tape it to the center of your computer screen, and take a Google Street View tour of Manhattan. Presto, you've just made your own Black Swan!

5. People not immersed in the world of dance are total morons.
When Nina and Lily have a night on the town, it's the very first time we encounter civilians who are in no way associated with classical ballet — you know, most people. And most people, it turns out, are unintelligent, fratty date-rapists. No in-betweens!

6. Winona Ryder's character is kind of just Winona Ryder.
Beth Macintyre is the aging has-been ballerina who doesn't deal well with being past her prime or with being replaced by younger, more deserving performers. Just sayin'.

7. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fai — oh shit, what was that?
If a movie is classified as a psychological thriller, audiences already know to be wary of reflective surfaces. So since this a psychological thriller about ballerinas, viewers should expect to be wary to the point of weariness. Between the dance-studio rehearsals, dressing-room wardrobe changes, and bathroom lock-ins, there's no shortage of portentous mirrors to trigger Nina's many psychological jolts. And because Aronofsky isn't one to half-ass it, you'll be frightened each and every time.

8. Subtlety is not Black Swan's strong suit.
Nina, perceived as fragile and meek, wears a lot of white, while the assertive wild-child Lily (Mila Kunis) can usually be found in black. Thomas Leroy is the demanding director who lives up to his kingly last name, controlling the fates of both of his swan queens, while Nina's imperious mother is set on preventing her daughter from leaving the nest. You don't need a large brain to figure out what this movie is relaying — just some functioning eyeballs and a strong stomach.

9. Aronofsky thinks the performing arts are painful.
Black Swan and The Wrestler both have an obsession with artists who have an obsession with performing. Mickey Rourke's Randy bled and bruised for his profession, and Nina bleeds and bruises for a host of reasons, her art being one of them. Could you imagine Aronofsky directing an episode of Glee? I couldn't!

10. The poster's better than the movie.
And the trailer too, frankly. The movie's promotional materials are slick and alluringly cool. So is the movie, but, under its sheen, there's not that much going on. A couple of good performances, some fancy visual techniques, and a handful of well-worn tropes don't quite carry Black Swan.