Director – Darren Aronofsky
Cast – Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway
Release Year – 2010
Reviewed by John of the Dead
2010 seems to be the year of big-name non-horror directors making their mark on the horror genre. Martin Scorsese(Goodfellas, Taxi Driver) delivered a top notch horror/thriller in Shutter Island, and to add to this mix one of film’s most artistic auteurs has now made his impact on the genre…Daren Aronofsky(Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Pi). Known for his amazing visuals and unique storytelling, Aronofsky delivers this film with such qualities, focusing on internal psychological horror in the vein of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and The Tenant. Black Swan may not be the most horrific watch of the year, but the horror in the film is well executed, and as far as quality goes this may be the best horror film of 2010.
Natalie Portman(Star Wars: Episode I, II, III) stars as Nina Sayers, a young ballet dancer auditioning for the lead role of Swan Queen in Thomas Leroy(Vincent Cassel; Irreversible, Sheitan)’s Swan Lake. Nina’s determination is unmatched by her peers, but her problems only worsen when she is awarded the role of Swan Queen. Her strive for perfection has consumed her, and it leads to horrifying events resulting in extreme sexual curiosity, blurry transitions between what is real and what is not,…and murder.
I will admit that I was a bit skeptical going into this film regarding its usage of “horror”. From the trailers and reviews that I had read I knew that Black Swan would not be a devout horror film, but I figured I would watch the film anyway and review it if it met my criteria, which it did. There are many types of “horror” in this genre, and the horror of someone’s psyche decomposing before their eyes is one not often used this day and age. To exemplify this type of horror the film must take its time in delivering it, using proper development in what will ultimately be a slow yet hopefully well executed watch. Black Swan is that slow yet well executed watch, and it begins with the screenplay.
The Wrestler writer Mark Heyman delivered this tight and well written screenplay to us, with the assistance of the unknown Andres Heinz, who now has a positive resume. From the get-go we are thrown into the claustrophobic world that Nina lives in, coming as a result of none other than her love for ballet. We learn that her very stern yet loving mother has experience in ballet as well, which proves to be both positive and negative for Nina once things get going. Hints towards a fragile state of mind for Nina are thrown in there and there, and slowly build up in intensity as the film progresses, leaving us as much in the dark over what is going on with Nina as she is in trying to figure out what she is going through. Her instructor, Thomas Leroy, does little to help her fragile state of mind with his hardened demands for perfection and manipulative ways, proving to be the best written character in the film aside from our protagonist Nina Sayers. As I mentioned earlier, there are elements of extreme sexual curiosity and exploration thrown into the mix, which is really what forced me to compare this film to Roman Polanski’s 1964 psychosexual classic Repulsion. We see the darling and innocent Nina ride down a dark tunnel towards numerous sexual impurities, which only work to dismantle her already fragile state. Mark Heyman’s horror is subtle and short lived in this film, but it hits hard and comes at just the right spaces in the film to keep the viewer engaged and engulfed in the horrific world that Nina is residing in.
While Heyman’s screenplay is fantastic and worthy of praise, it is Darren Aronofsky’s direction that truly sells the film. The film’s opening sequence is amazing, throwing us into the dark yet captivating mood the film will carry throughout its smooth 108 minute runtime. The claustrophobic feel written into the film is also apparent in Aronofsky’s direction, with Nina’s apartment coming off as small and crowded, yet her dance hall is filled with wide open spaces symbolic of the freedom she seeks from her dancing. He gets great performances from all involved, and Natalie Portman delivers the performance of her lifetime, selling every scene with perfect emotion. The ever-awesome Vincent Cassel also gives us a memorable performance as Thomas Leroy, proving that this Frenchman can take on a variety of roles given his memorable characters in Irreversible and Sheitan. Aronofsky’s attention to detail is what really sold me on this film, with his perfect and gloomy sets providing a nice atmosphere for the horror involved. So how is the horror? Well, as I mentioned earlier: it is subtle at times and short lived, but it is worthwhile nonetheless. Don’t go into this film expecting lots of spooks and jump scares, but instead expect hallucinatory horror that will leave you in the dark over what is real and what is not, questioning every scene of the movie, which is pretty darn scary in its own right if you put yourself in Nina’s shoes. To add to this we are given some physical horror in addition to the mental horror Nina is experiencing, which is only icing on the cake that is this fantastic psychological horror film.
Overall, Black Swan is a fresh breath in the modern day horror scene because it gives us a unique storyline focusing on the psychological horror involved with an element hardly(if ever) used in the horror genre…ballet. A tight screenplay and excellent direction help this piece move smoothly and deliver a sweet visual feast to the viewer, and the horror involved is self-sustaining and worthy of references to Roman Polanski’s early works.