The Ballerina Who Could: Black Swan

The Ballerina Who Could: Black Swan

Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Release date: January 21st 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 108 minutes

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder

Exclusive interview with Clint Mansell

When I was little my mother had a music box with a little ballerina twirling to the music of Swan Lake. As she spun she would glimpse her own reflection in the mirror on the inner lid, and it seemed like there were always two of them. Until one day I dropped it. The ballerina broke in half and the music would no longer play.

Black Swan reminds me of that music box and the way I would lose myself in its world. The movie stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a timid, shy and sexually repressed dancer in a New York City ballet company who has just won the role of the Swan Queen in a new production of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. As the role requires her to be both the White Swan and the Black Swan, Nina struggles to find that darker side of herself.

Black SwanShe is pushed by her director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) and a beautiful new rival, Lily (Mila Kunis) until she breaks in half, arriving at an inevitable, burning climax.

Aronofsky had grown up witnessing first hand his own sister’s tough training as a ballet dancer, so the idea for Black Swan had many years to marinate. It was intended as a companion piece to his previous film The Wrestler (2008) since both films embody the idea of what a performer has to go through to achieve the perfect performance. Aronofsky explains:

“Some people call wrestling the lowest of art forms, and some call ballet the highest of art forms, yet there is something elementally the same. Mickey Rourke as a wrestler was going through something very similar to Natalie Portman as a ballerina. They’re both artists who use their bodies to express themselves and they’re both threatened by physical injury, because their bodies are the only tool they have for expression. What was interesting for me was to find these two connected stories in what might appear to be unconnected worlds.”

Black Swan

At times Black Swan is very David Lynch-like in its depiction of Nina’s fractured world. It’s a place where doppelgangers roam freely and you’re never quite sure which side of the mirror you’re on. There are moments when Nina tears at herself as the Black Swan struggles to break out; these scenes are compelling yet difficult to watch because of the harm she wreaks on her own body.


Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote Swan Lake in 1875 based on Russian folk tales.

In the story, Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette, a princess who has been cursed by an evil sorcerer. The only way for the spell to be broken is for a man pure of heart to pledge his love to her.

Odile wants to marry the prince so she casts a spell to make herself appear as Odette and tricks him, but he finds out and chooses instead to dive into the lake with Odette pledging his love for her, breaking the spell.

The story is told in four acts.

Other scenes are mesmerizing for the raw sexuality and voyeurism they invite us to. The club scene which plays to the sounds of The Chemical Brothers, although a sharp contrast to Nina’s world, is a brilliant juxtaposition of colours and sounds.

Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis spent ten months preparing for their roles which meant intensive ballet training. They give incredible performances, but it’s Portman who the spotlight is on, the camera never leaves her, and in a way we see her digging for perfection as much as Nina does for her role.

Black Swan

Winona Ryder as the fading star Beth, who is too old to dance, reminds us how short the shelf life is for these performers who give their lives to art in return for those fleeting moments of perfection. Sadly, we never see her dance but we can take it on faith that she’s a girl who doesn’t like to be interrupted.

The score by Clint Mansell takes Tchaikovsky’s music from Swan Lake to a new level. The pieces are haunted with something darker running alongside it, like Nina.

Black Swan is far more amazing, beautiful, terrifying and intoxicating than I expected. Despite it being Lynchy in some respects, the story is told linear and without riddles. It also reminds me of Lars von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark (2000), Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Steven Klein’s art exhibit X-STaTIC PRO=CeSS which featured Madonna as a dancer bringing a performance piece to life and death. Yet Black Swan remains quintessentially Aronofsky: challenging and absorbing.

Let's talk... » Add your comment!

  1. Really enjoyed reading this great review about an amazing movie!!! :)

  2. Great review. Well thought out. Loved your story about the music box. That should have been in the film if Aronofsky had thought it out instead of all the horror movie cliches.

    A music bow ballerina breaking would have been so much more powerful than what cheap shots were used. I hated the film but your review was thought provoking. Well done.

    Aronofsky reminds me of a Ken Russell wannabe. Ain’t gonna happen.

  3. Thanks for putting up the info on Swan Lake, I keep reading about Black Swan but I didn’t know much about the actual ballet. Really enjoyed your review.

  4. Patrick, what can I say, I am stunned. You review is a breathtaking piece of writing. Totally putting the reader into the film, giving perspective, offering analogies in other works, and letting us in on insightful background information. It has everything in it… especially for such a short piece.

    That it is your ‘all-time favorite film’ has me questioning your sanity, birthdate, and attention span…. but I feel so enlightened by reading your review. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  5. Great review, looking forward to seeing the movie!

  6. Really impressive review. Love it.

  7. I loved it! Even tempted to buy a tshirt from etsy….so yea, I guess I’m officially a fan girl ;) p

    Loved your review, have you seen Mao’s Last Dancer?

  8. nice review! Good film, Portman worked realy hard to perform like that (it’s silly saying she wasn’t a good dancer,it’s not her job)

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