For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Psychological Thriller Films, here’s a review of Black Swan (2010) by Steven of Past, Present, Future TV and Film
Thanks again to Diego of Lazy Sunday Movies. for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s Genre has been chosen by Gill of WeegieMidget Reviews We will be reviewing our favorite Movies Filmed in (or take place in) Scotland
Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Nov by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org Try to think out of the box! Great choice Gill!
Let’s see what Steven thought of this movie:
What makes a good and effective thriller? Not just one that’s good the first time around, but many more viewings later. There are a lot of areas to oversee, how do you get them all right? In skilled hands, this isn’t so much a problem, but something you look forward to. Expectations are actually welcome. If only all filmmakers could have that sort of reputation and highly attuned storytelling ability.
The Fox Searchlight Pictures film “Black Swan”, is a beautifully crafted, twisted, and mesmerizing thriller that takes on so many elements and brings them together flawlessly.
This psychological thriller stars Natalie Portman (upcoming “Jackie”, “Knight of Cups”), Vincent Cassel (upcoming “It’s Only the End of the World”, “Jason Bourne”), Mila Kunis (“Bad Moms”, “Family Guy”), Barbara Hershey (“The 9th Life of Louis Drax”, “Damien”), Winona Ryder (“Stranger Things”, “Show Me a Hero”).
The film was directed by Darren Aronofsky (“Noah”, “The Wrestler”) and written by Mark Heyman (“The Skeleton Twins”), Andrés Heinz, and John McLaughlin (“The Magic History of Cinema”, “Parker”).
The film originally opened on Dec. 17, 2010. It would go on to be nominated for five Academy Awards; winning one, four Golden Globe Awards; winning one, and three Screen Actors Guild Awards; winning one, among many other wins and nominations.
I’ve been blown away before, and I’m sure I will be at some point in the near future, but watching this film again just astounded me. I definitely made the right choice when buying this film. I say that because when I bought it, however long ago that was, it was almost an impulse buy. I’d seen it once before, but I couldn’t really remember what I thought of it. Did I like it enough, or was I just pleased that I got to see a film that not only won major awards, but was praised so highly? No, as it turns out, I liked it. Nope, I loved it! And I loved it this time too. It really was one of those moments when it felt like the first time.
Which in turn allowed me to just take it all in. Every detail was so well done, that the finished film just ended up being one beautiful example of filmmaking at its best. It certainly leaves me confident that this film should age quite well over the next several decades.
The score takes center stage. Immediately it sets the tone. A very specific tone. It’s also very appropriate. This is a film that centers on ballet, and a classical piece of ballet. So with that in mind, we’re treated to a classical inspired score that does so much more than just present beauty with anything ballet related. It captures Portman’s everyday activities. It frightens. It pulls you along in a dreamlike way that makes it even easier to stay with and in the story. With this score, composed by Clint Mansell (“High-Rise”, “Noah”), you get a score that not only is like its own character, but effectively elicits the desired emotions. One moment you’re giddy, the next there’s a looming feeling of dread, or some tense dramatic exchange. Any and all are allowed to exist because of an effortlessness that Mansell carries all the way through the end credits. One thing about the score though, it’s tough to fully separate what was new and what has previously existed as it’s part of “Swan Lake”. Some stood out more, but because of Mansell’s approach, it was all one entity.
The cinematography now enters stage left, and is a wonder to behold. It not only captured beauty and pain, but it was itself beautiful. With so much going on at any one moment, you had to be quick to look at what was presented to you at all times. One blink, and you’ve missed something. It may not have even been the most important of details, so far as the principal story is concerned, but it still told so much. Some films don’t focus on the little things, even indirectly, but here, when given the chance, you can get one shot of a room and learn so much about a character. Portman’s room, decorated like one meant for a girl of the age of eight, was definitely a fine example of this.
The cinematography also came through when it came to bringing out any feelings the audience was supposed to feel. Being a psychological thriller, some work from other aspects of filmmaking needed to be on display. The camerawork achieved here does just that. Again, what was achieved wasn’t just beautiful, but was also personal. You were there. As close to seeing all that Portman’s Nina Sayers sees. With so many specific angles used in shots, you could certainly understand the world she lives in. The beauty of ballet, when seen during practices or rehearsals, and the work that’s done at home. Through this, and as the film progresses, showing Portman’s dedication to her work, and the strive for perfection, you felt the intense pressure. The demands weren’t just clearly and expertly displayed by Portman.
This in turn allowed for every unsettling and psychological thing to permeate all the way through. While it started slow, and mostly as a competitive drive, it gradually became it’s own thing. An unknown entity. A monster. With steady camerawork, like Nina, we too were unsure of what we witnessed. Was it just tiredness from the desire to be perfect? Was it exhaustion from trying to achieve the goal desired, but having an overbearing and jealous mother always around, adding unhelpful opinions? Was it paranoia as the other girls in the company wanted the lead role? All of these are actually explored, but at any one time, something may not seem like it is. Through clever uses of imagery, an easy narrative can be had, but a critique is also offered. Through this combination, frightening elements can come through and in this, you’ve begun to wonder if it’s all in your head or are people out to sabotage you?
Beauty is not just within that which captures human motion. It can be had in the simple activity at the center of the film. In this case, that’s ballet. Crossing stage right, every aspect of ballet that was featured was utterly breathtaking. I know nothing of ballet, except that which I’d previously “learned” from watching “Bunheads”. Because of this lack of knowledge, I get an eye opening experience in this film. Just from what was shown here it’s clear that ballet is such a beautiful and artful from of expression. The dedication, which was shown pretty well, but probably not nearly in depth enough, is incredible. Bring in the camerawork, which found such amazing ways to capture this type of dance, and it’s no longer just beautiful, but fascinating. I couldn’t look away. Everything interested me. Seeing Portman audition and then practice, time and again, all in the hopes of perfecting a series of moves, had my eyes glued to the screen. Now imagine what it was like to see all the other dancers doing their part to bring this classic story to the stage. But no production is complete without costumes and sets. These two elements may have come in quietly, almost unnoticed, but they’re just as stunning as the finished film. This film exudes elegance, so why wouldn’t the costumes? You may only see them for a short while, but even then, it’s well worth the wait you didn’t know you were part of.
In some films, like other performance art pieces, there’s always the possibility of being upstaged. And that’s what we seem to find now. While everything else is a bit upstaged by all the performances, especially Portman’s, they’re each still crucial to the rest of the film coming together. Each performance takes you deeper and deeper, and never lets go.
Portman’s performance as Nina has got to be one of my favorites. It’s so incredibly nuanced that there’s little doubt as to who she is. You see it. You get it. This goes beyond the traditional idea of likability, mainly as there are some moments when she’s not really likable. But, it’s understandable. A theme, that I previously hadn’t noticed or can recall noticing, tells us so much about Portman, and gives us the surreal aspects of the film’s story. As Portman continues to push herself, not just to be the best, but to perform everything above the standard of good, she starts crossing a line. How far is too far? The search for perfection, for many people, I’m sure, is nothing new. Everything, in some way, is a competition. For Portman, it’s with herself first and foremost. But eventually it all starts to bleed into the rest of her life.
Portman’s pushing herself so hard, and facing her own self, that her world seems to be fracturing. Strange phenomena is occurring, but why? Is she the only one who sees it? Elsewhere in the real world Portman struggles with the idea that Kunis is out to get her. A good way to add to the ever growing mountain of pressure she’s under. One showcase of this, before the biggest one, where Portman practically attacks Kunis, is when Portman’s auditioning. Kunis arrives late, and absentmindedly closes the door too loudly. This throws Portman, who was in the middle of a complicated and physically demanding routine, which was also an incredibly shot sequence. The aftermath was what stunned me. Portman’s composure and focus is never really regained, and you can tell she’s really distressed about this. It’s a fascinating display of who she is, which is really tame when compared to later moments. She wants this role that badly.
Going off of Portman’s drive, the question of perfection becomes more than just an idea. It becomes a cautionary tale. If you want it badly enough, is it worth it to make so many sacrifices? What are you willing to give up in order to achieve this specific goal and level of perfection ( which always seem to go hand in hand)? For those of you who haven’t seen this film, just skip on down, a potential spoiler shall be contained within the rest of this paragraph. I personally love the ending of this dark and dreary film. I’ve also only ever viewed it in one way. Portman’s character dies in the end, thus completing the mirroring storylines, which sees Portman completing the surreal black swan transformation she began at about the start of the film. It’s also the only thing that makes sense to me. Portman had been working so hard to get this particular role, but never succeeded. Now she has. So she must work incredibly hard for it, but as it turns out, it’s more demanding than she thought. By the end of the push and pull and the drive for excellence, she’s spun so far out of control, that the only thing left to do, is crash. So she does. In her increasing and dangerous fractured state, she stabs herself and dies by ballet’s end. As the White Swan killed herself, so too, did Nina Sayers. She had one goal, and in the end, she paid the ultimate price. Fade to white, with the audience still applauding the ballet performance.
To bring this, and many other aspects of the complicated Nina to life, Portman nailed it. I could care less which other women were considered for this role. No one could’ve pulled it off like Portman. She had all of the necessary elements to be Nina, the White Swan, and the Black Sawn. To go back and forth on the emotional spectrum, and to capture such a vulnerable and fragile woman.
Nina’s Mother, Erica Sayers, played so well by Hershey, is a formidable woman. She’s got everything that you’d want from a mother. Loving, supportive, and just there. However, and this is where you can debate back and forth, she’s a bit overbearing. Jealous even. She cut short her own career for the sake of her daughter. Now, the issue for me doesn’t lie in her sacrificing her career, although one could debate that too, it’s in her continued need to control everything. Since Portman’s room is made up like she’s a little girl still, one can’t help but wonder if that’s because her mother dictates everything. If that’s the case, it explains a lot. It also explains how Hershey, like with Portman in a way, goes through a transformation. She starts out just being supportive and helpful, but as we go along, and the demands on Portman increase, real or imagined, Hershey’s relationship with her daughter seems to change. She wants success for her daughter, but at the same time she can’t seem to stand the thought that it’s all a bit too much. It’s this that leaves a little gray area, and makes it easy to wonder if Hershey’s interference is out of a controlling jealousy or plain old parental concern. Throughout the film there are flashes of all of these, and really any one could be the added cause for the stress Portman feels.
Kunis’ Lily and even Cassel’s Thomas each bring two dynamic people to life. They each contribute so many different things, and each impacts Portman profoundly. What helps too, so it’s not ambiguous, is the fact that these two characters are very much their own. Kunis and Cassel also bring some complicated people to life through nuanced performances. They each do have one stated goal, but go about achieving it differently. They want the performance to go well, more than well.
Cassel pushes Nina, which makes sense as she’s playing dual roles in the ballet, but with Portman getting in her own way it’s difficult. Watching Cassel navigate and direct is nothing short of captivating. He knows what he wants and hopefully can convince Portman that she’s truly got it in herself to deliver. But first she must overcome her own weaknesses and insecurities, many of which were a product of her mother’s influence.
As for Kunis, well, she may be a fresh face in the company and be naturally talented, is a victim of sorts. She’s there to just support the company and play her part. However, her personality, which is a polar opposite of Portman’s, clashes a bit. Kunis has this freedom and natural way of being that Portman lacks. Trying to befriend Portman doesn’t go anywhere near as planned and a perceived rivalry begins. I noticed this, as I was supposed to, but I hadn’t fully connected it to the story of “Swan Lake”, which this story mirrors from the get go. It’s certainly an interesting dynamic that pushes and pushes Portman so much, and only serves to bring doubt and uncertainty into the film.
For any psychological thriller to work, the pieces can’t just be there. They must mesh together seamlessly, and have you transfixed and as into the story as possible. With the skilled hands that Aronofsky possesses, he managed just that.
Every element played its part. The final product not only had Portman spinning in various directions, but hopefully had audiences spinning. What did it most for me, were a couple of things. As the film goes on there’s one I missed. The unreliable narrator. It’s not new with this type of storytelling, but I haven’t seen it so effectively used. Portman’s mental state can’t be trusted. What she thought had happened (lesbian sex) was all in her head. There, of course, are smaller moments, but none that truly nail this idea down. The others are almost like suggestions, as it’s still early in the film and we don’t see Portman really descending into madness. One such suggestion, which could go either way on whether it was real or not, or just as described, is when Hershey first see’s Portman’s back. Hershey is concerned Portman’s been scratching and marring her skin. Later, it’s worse and Portman says it’s just a rash. Well, this rash continues to spread until it’s final transformation. So, was this just a scratch or a rash, or was Portman just creating a condition and believing it existed? There’s also that moment between Kunis and Portman during the film, where, even though we’ve seen how fractured she’s become, it’s still not crystal clear. This film’s already taken many chances, why not now? As it turns out, it’s more of Portman’s mind tricks.
And so the film goes on, and we see Portman breaking, and with that, delusions. Frightening moments, which were spectacularly unsettling. Bringing in fear like this, without needing to go overboard, was a welcome surprise. I must admit, probably because I was so into the film, I started to question my own mind along with what I was remembering from several minutes before. Did Portman really witness Ryder doing that? Or, simpler yet, were those girls in her company talking about her in harsh, but hushed whispers? Was there some malevolent presence terrorizing her, trying to keep her from her destiny? Like with the above references, some of these moments seem to be a bit up in the air. You’re probably right about it all being a delusion, but there’s not really a 100 percent definitive answer. A little room for maybe it was actually occurring. I thought of this for several moments, but after the film ended, I’d think back on if there were consequences to any given event Portman “witnessed”. Then I’d be confused again, and have to back track as best I could. A psychological thriller isn’t just confined to the character’s in the film. Can your own mind be trusted, when so much of what’s happening really could be anything but what you’re seeing?
A psychological thriller, by definition, is one that plays with the mind. Be it the mind of a single character or that of the audience. Some of the best have managed to do both. On top of that, a good psychological thriller can also exist within a well made film. A film that doesn’t sacrifice one or more elements for the sake of another. Somehow, in skilled hands, various elements are all allowed to come out and play. As an audience member, being able to get in there, stay hooked the entire time, and be amazed and entertained should be a given, but too often it’s not. Those types of thrillers or psychological thrillers, usually have noting that warrants being seen again, let alone remembered. It truly is the little things that make all the difference.