Thrills, Chills & Spills: Black Swan Review

by Emilia & Linda on November 3, 2010

Is this movie for you?

Go if: You like your ballets bitter and intense, preferably with a dark twist. You loved Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. You are familiar with Aronofsky’s psychological dramas of obsessive pursuits and human extremes.

Skip if: You squirm at the sight of blood and gore. You are a traditionalist and can’t put up with anyone taking artistic license on audience favorite Swan Lake. You are expecting a Hollywood tearjerker about “triumph in the face of adversity” – in that case you’d better stick with Mao’s Last Dancer.

Black Swan Promo Poster. Copyright: Fox Searchlight ©

Background & Motivation

Darren Aronofsky opened his screen talk at the 54th London Film Festival last month explaining how he hadn’t tried to avoid the overt hysteria from the ballet world “I didn’t try to avoid it at all, I hope I captured some of it. I wanted to make a film that was sort of a ballet, a dramatisation of Swan Lake so we weren’t really afraid of camp and melodrama.” Explaining that to outsiders ballet may be “a bizarre thing”, the director saw all this as the perfect opportunity to make a movie that was “kind of outrageous to film.”

The idea for Black Swan had been in Aronofsky’s mind since he graduated from film school. Along with professional wrestling (addressed in The Wrestler), ballet was part of a list he had drawn of different worlds to explore as “audiences like to be taken to unique places to see the details”. His sister had taken ballet classes for many years and, as a filmmaker, he is no stranger to stories about pushing physical limits (even in more existentialist movies like Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain he deals with the topic of abusing one’s body). Natalie Portman had also studied ballet until age 13 and wanted to be involved in a dance movie, so when they met about 8 years ago Aronofsky knew he had found his leading actress. Speaking about Portman’s knack for playing innocent, naive types, he said to the audience at BFI he had then hoped to be the one to “scandalise her.”

Despite the presence of an international movie star, a great supporting cast, a sexy/scary argument, plus a Golden Lion award under his belt, Aronofsky said Black Swan had been more difficult to finance than its predecessor The Wrestler. The other big challenge was getting the ballet world to open its doors for him. Eventually Aronofsky came across NYCB’s Benjamin Millepied who agreed to choreograph the movie’s ballet scenes. Ballet companies slowly came on board and SAB helped with rehearsal space. The production team saw a lot of ballet and attended classes and rehearsals. We had the chance to ask Aronofsky what this process had been like and he replied:

Just going to the ballet is a pretty deep commitment, a 3-hour long commitment!! (…) but I wanted everyone to go to class and see what they did, because I think it’s amazing, it’s almost like a fashion show in class, [the dancers] are really very aware of what they are wearing and how they are wearing it, even if it’s just ripped sweat pants, but that hole is in the exact place, so it is very interesting, they are very stylish and there is a whole world there so everyone went, even the hair people, makeup people, they all descended upon ABT, NYCB, The Joffrey and saw what they were doing.

Natalie Portman also did her own research, reading biographies of dancers and observing their “ritualistic behaviours” and traits. For example, she observed dancers spoke with “soft girlish voices” and thus her character Nina speaks with an almost childlike pitch. She trained with former NYCB dancer Mary Helen Bowers for about 10 months, juggling classes with the demands of filming, often a 16-hour routine. Portman is now being tipped for an Oscar nomination at next year’s Academy Awards.

Black Swan Promo Poster / Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. Copyright: Fox Searchlight ©

Our take on Black Swan (no major spoilers!)

Since its premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival Black Swan has been receiving good reviews, with many seeking to compare it with other movies or commenting on its genre-defying aspects. Aronofsky doesn’t think the movie can be boxed into one single genre, as directors are nowadays more free to combine different aesthetics. As we wrote in  “5 Things We Can Expect From Black Swan” the movie mashes up several elements, even fairy tale and surrealism. Moments of delicate beauty quickly shift into anxiety and veer off further into grotesque. Aronofsky proves again to be a master of the psychological and intense; he makes us look beyond the classical beauty of Swan Lake to focus on the “raw” aspects of the tale: physical transformation, duality, innocence and corruption.

Natalie Portman plays the part of Nina, a New York dancer who has been cast by Artistic Director Thomas Leroy (a very creepy Vincent Cassel) as the company’s new Swan Queen. As she pushes herself beyond physical and mental limits to capture the nuances of the dual role of Odette/Odile, she starts to harbour fantasies and insecurities that turn the opportunity of a lifetime into a nightmare. Nina’s perfectionism drives her to take Leroy’s ideal vision of the White Swan/Black Swan as absolute value; she loses herself in the role and by constantly trying to measure against three strong female influences: the experienced ballerina Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder) who’s being made to step out of the limelight, Nina’s domineering mother Erica (an ex-ballerina who gave up dancing to look after her child) and, most importantly, new company joiner Lily (Mila Kunis), a seductive dancer so perfect for the part of Black Swan she even has black wings tattooed on her back. Nina starts to see these women as threats while we are reminded of Leroy’s words to her “The only thing standing in your way is you.”

Aronofsky scatters the pieces of his puzzle so that we can form our own views about Nina vs. herself + Nina vs. Lily/Beth/Erica. This is neither a movie for ballet purists nor for those seeking the thrill of virtuoso dancing. Instead of the usual “ballet within the movie” we get “the movie within the ballet”. Nina, Lily, Leroy behave in “real life” like characters in Swan Lake and the fact that we hardly see any interactions between Nina and her partner (played by Benjamin Millepied) might be intentional – so as to mirror the dynamics of a weaker Siegfried vs. the more influential Rothbart/Leroy. Aronofsky did a great job bringing to life the ballet world and taking care that every detail would be realistic, the ballet costumes have just the right measure of designer-chic (they do not scream Rodarte and all the better for it) and the pared down production of Swan Lake helps us maintain focus on Nina’s transformation. Another highlight is the beautiful score by Clint Mansell (a longtime Aronofsky collaborator) which deconstructs Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and uses it everywhere.

Black Swan does not set about challenging any preconceptions about ballet, it does no PR for the art form. Besides showing the dedication of dancers, the milieu is not portrayed as modern, trendy, bursting with new ideas. Doing so would have negated the very nature of Aronofsky’s tale in which the ballet company is a claustrophobic environment, a basement of thick concrete walls that oppresses Nina (not unlike Odette in the lake). One of the dancers observes right at the beginning “No one comes to see ballet anymore”, which made us think of Jennifer Homans’ arguments about ballet being an art form in peril. But the movie does show ballet as a fantastic, strange-yet-alluring world where performers might be as passionate as the stories they tell through dance.

Have you seen Black Swan yet? Do leave a comment below and let us know whether you liked the movie or if you were “too creeped out” by it!

Mini Biography

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Film Editing: Andrew Weisblum
Art Direction: David Stein
Set Direction: Tora Peterson
Costume Design: Amy Westcott
Production Design: Thérèse DePrez
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Screenplay: Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz
Original Music: Clint Mansell
Cast: Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, Mila Kunis as Lily, Winona Ryder as Beth MacIntyre, Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy

Sources and Further Information

  • On the Set: ‘Black Swan’s Natalie Portman, Darren Aronofsky on the edge, by Tom Roston. Los Angeles Times, October 2010 [link]
  • A Dark Transformation to Strains of ‘Swan Lake’ by Terrence Rafferty. New York Times, October 2010 [link]
  • Black Swan Movie Promo Posters [link]
  • Black Swan on IMDB [link]
  • Official Facebook Page [link]
  • Viral website: “I Just Want to be Perfect” [link]
  • Nina Sayers’s “I Just Want to be Perfect” on Facebook [link] & on Twitter @theswanqueen

Yumiko Black Swan Promotion Results:

To celebrate the launch of the movie we recently ran a Yumiko giveaway for TWO exclusive, limited edition “Black Swan” leotards.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the competition! We received many wonderful entries via email and comment and it was tough for us to pick only two answers. After much brainstorming we are pleased to announce the 2 winners:

1) Wendy Leotard – goes to Alli Folk who emailed us the following entry:

I will never forget watching ABT’s Swan Lake for the first time. Before the performance, my teacher taught us the part of “Four Little Swans,” which was absolutely thrilling after only a few months en pointe. I remember gleefully executing the steps, and imagining myself to be a real ballerina. When we finally went to the performance, I remember counting Odile’s fouettés, and being absolutely horrified that the ballerina only executed 31! The next week, I attempted to do fouettés en pointe and learned that 31 was pretty impressive given that I could barely do two…The production really stands out in my mind, as it inspired me to work harder at ballet so that I could one day be a swan. While I may not be a professional ballerina today, I still fondly recall that production of Swan Lake as inspiring me to practice more diligently than ever. Every pointe class, I try to make my bourrées light and swan-like, and I try to dance precisely with the other girls just as the ABT corps danced. Today, I still remember my amazement at the precision and lightness of the dancers, and I try to incorporate that technique into every ballet class I take.

2) Daniela Leotard – goes to Rachel Handshaw who submitted the following comment:

I’ve seen various versions of “Swan Lake” in person over the years with different companies, including American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, and Matthew Bourne’s version for an all-male swan corps. However, ironically, the incarnation that has moved me the most is one I’ve only seen on DVD: John Neumeier’s “Illusions like Swan Lake” with the Hamburg Ballet. Neumeier’s vision is pretty radical for classical ballet. Instead of staging a traditional version, he filters the story of “Swan Lake” through the life of a king clearly inspired by the swan-obsessed Ludwig II of Bavaria. The unbalanced king dreams of an unattainable love (either with a fantasy swan maiden or with a man, but not his fiancee) but is haunted and pursued by a dark figure. He eventually descends into madness.

It is the second act of Neumeier’s version that is both the most moving and most traditional. The king attends a private performance of the second act of “Swan Lake”. The white act is staged in its entirety with the familiar Ivanov choreography. The king becomes so entranced by the performance that he actually steps into the central pas deux. The pas de deux becomes a pas de trois for Odette, the king, and Siegfried, much like the pas de trois in the original Ivanov choreography for Odette, Benno, and Siegfried. During this section, complete with huntsmen for the swan maidens, I felt as if I were seeing what pre-Soviet audiences must have seen at the Mariinsky Theatre. The swan maidens’ tutus are feathery and light, and the Hamburg corps de ballet dance with a real poignancy. It was the first time I realized that these women were in the same boat as Odette! Neumeier’s vision is multilayered, dramatic, and affecting. I want to see the Hamburg Ballet dance it in person someday.

If your entry was not picked this time, don’t worry. Lookout for further Yumiko promotions over here in the future!

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La Darina November 9, 2010 at 3:10 pm

I was lucky to catch the movie at LFF – thanks to BFI membership ; ) I thought it was indeed very creepy and overly melodramatic but at the same time totally irresistible & gorgeous. Interesting to hear these were exactly the elements DA wanted to emphasise!

debra levine November 11, 2010 at 7:14 am

Hi ladies,

Here’s my BLACK SWAN review. Cheers, from Los Angeles!


Emilia November 11, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Many thanks for posting the link Debra. Great read!

Linda November 11, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Great read! Can’t wait to see it myself.

Marie November 22, 2010 at 9:55 am

Great article, and thanks for the links also! I can’t wait to see this movie.

Emilia November 22, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Glad you enjoyed Marie! Please drop by again & tell us what you thought of the movie! Best, E.

Caroline January 26, 2011 at 11:44 pm

As a former professional ballerina, I can relate to the psychological aspects of the film and also think the details of the ballet world were well observed. I understood the effect stress can have on the brain, and I liked the touch of the feet becoming webbed like a swan. I’m not sure that the over the top violent parts did much for the ballet world, but then that’s part of the cinematic artistic licence and I appreciated it as such.

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