Black Swan has garned much acclaim. It has an 88% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, it has garnered strong Oscar Buzz for the film itself and Natalie Portman in particular and it has made many a critic’s best of 2010 list. However, the film I saw was a disappointment.
The film details the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina in the company of of a struggling New York City ballet group. She has been chosen for the lead role in the ballet company’s new production of Swan Lake. There is only one problem, Nina is a perfect for the pure and innocent White Swan, but not so much for the seductive, manipulative Black Swan.
The pressures to get the role right, added to problems at home with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), and at work with a potential rival in Lily (Mila Kunis) and with the unorthodox techniques of the ballet director, LeRoy (Vincent Cassel), cause Nina to go down a downward spiral of insanity and madness.
Ambiguity is the rule of the film, which is fitting due to the “did this really happen” nature of the events that occur once Nina starts to go crazy. But the ambiguity hampers the film when it comes to characterization.
The characters are poorly defined cyphers. We never find out why they are the way they are, they just are. This might be acceptable for the supporting characters, but for the heroine who we will have to watch descend into madness, it is crippling.
We are thrown right into the film and we only know Nina as a high strung, albeit nice, girl with an unhealthy pursuit of perfection. However, we are not shown how she got this way. The only clue we get is through her relationship with her mother, who is portrayed as being maniacally overprotective with a subtle undercurrent of resentful, passive aggressive esteem assassination. But Nina never seems to be all that affected by the repeated phone calls from mom once she is five minutes late getting home. So this reason for Nina’s characterization seems hollow. Other than that, we never see anything that would indicate why Nina would go so far over the edge.
This acts as a double-edged sword that hacks the film to pieces. First of all, we do not become invested in Nina as a character. Therefore, we don’t feel for her as she starts to go insane. Her plight lacks resonance. Second, the lack of characterization means that there is no context for her hallucinations in the latter part of the film. This might sound weird, but there should be some logic to the way she goes crazy. The hallucinations, without a tether or anchor to Nina’s psyche, become hollow titillations for the sake of the audience.
This means that the ending, which is as ambiguous as the scenes that comes before it, becomes unnecessarily confusing. Instead of leaving the theater saying, “Here’s what I think happened,” you’ll leave the theater asking, “What the Hell just happened?”
The direction is a frenetic whirlwind that adds to the tension that builds throughout the film. But if you are particularly sensitive to motion sickness–beware. The jittery, “hand-cam” way the film is shot will guarantee you spend most of the time looking at your shoes.
The acting is good all around, given what they had to work with. Natalie Portman throws herself into the role and Winona Ryder makes the most of her limited screen time as the former prima ballerina forced out to make way for Nina’s rise.
But great acting aside, it was not enough to make me become emotionally involved in the characters. Which, in turn, spoils the movie. Instead of a taut, one hour and fifty minute thriller, it is an exercise in boredom.