‘Black Swan’ movie review: Natalie Portman in Darren Aronofsky’s psychological ballet

The Red Shoes meets Repulsion: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a riveting piece of psychological ballet horror, wraps you up in its feverish nightmare pace and never lets go. 

Here’s a filmmaker in such fervent control of his material that your eyes are relentlessly glued to the screen; the familiar storytelling techniques – the is-it-or-isn’t-it-real? vibe, which can easily sink films like this – doesn’t detract, because this isn’t a mystery to be solved, it’s a performance to be experienced.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a timid, insecure young ballet dancer with a repressive mother (Barbara Hershey) who charts her every move. When Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), the prima ballerina in Nina’s company, abruptly retires, Nina finds herself up for the lead in their next production: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. “Done to death, I know,” says director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), “but not like this. We strip it down, make it visceral, and real.”

The delicate, innocent Nina is perfect as the White Swan, but there’s one problem: she can’t hope to pull off the dark seductiveness of the role’s counterpart, the titular Black Swan. Her confidence is dealt another blow by the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), a dark-skinned free spirit who dances with abandon and seems just right for the role. Nina is committed to perfection, just like the heroine in The Red Shoes, but she doesn’t seem capable of pulling it off.

To complicate matters, Nina just might be completely insane. She imagines marks on her skin, tearing off the skin around her nail (a direct reference to a similar scene in Repulsion), confrontations with her mother, encounters with Lily. Or does she? We see the world through her eyes, and the line between reality and fantasy is frequently blurred. 

This is nothing new – the descent into madness and the unreliable narrator are storytelling conventions that have been around for hundreds of years – but Aronofsky subverts the modern convention of separating the audience from the unreliable lead, and successfully drags us into the madness along with Nina.

To this end, the cinematography by Matthew Libatique aids greatly: the always-wavering, handheld work, filled with close-ups and almost entirely focused on and around Portman’s Nina, never gives us a moment to relax. Editing by Andrew Weisblum helps keep up the fever pitch; original music by Clint Mansell is effective, but helplessly overshadowed by Tchaikovsky by the end.

The climatic Swan Lake sequence – in particular, Nina’s transformation into the titular creature – is one of the more memorable moments in recent cinema history; when Portman’s Black Swan first looks into the camera, she sends shivers down your spine.

Portman’s performance as Nina is revelatory – it’s easily the most accomplished thing she’s done. The actress so effortlessly convinces us of her character’s insecurities and inabilities – there’s no way, we think, she could really pull off the Black Swan – that when she actually does make the transformation, we’re as in awe as the audience in the film. Portman has been nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, which she should, by all rights, win.

The film has also scored Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Editing, and Cinematography; Picture and Director have likely already been decided (The King’s Speech/The Social Network), and Editing and Cinematography are competitive categories. But in a year of many great films, Black Swan might be my favorite.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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