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Madness Explicitly Depicted in Black Swan

  • Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2010 12 Dec
  • COMMENTS
Madness Explicitly Depicted in <i>Black Swan </i>

DVD Release Date: March 29, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: December 3, 2010
Rating: R (for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 107 min.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Actors: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder

Director Darren Aronofsky likes darkness. His films Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler all deal with dark, troubling themes. Although the characters in his films sometimes pursue hopeful outcomes—for instance, Mickey Rourke's character in The Wrestler desires reconciliation with his daughter—they usually meet bad ends.

Black Swan's Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is no different. She's the latest Aronofsky victim, a ballet dancer who lands the lead in Swan Lake. But the moment Nina wins the role, her problems start to overwhelm her. Her twisted mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), is living vicariously through her daughter, having given up her own dreams of being a dancer so she could give birth to Nina years earlier (Nina's dad is absent in Black Swan). When Nina tries to live her own life, Erica transforms into a demented stage mother, reminding Nina of the sacrifices she made and celebrating Nina's plum role by threatening to trash a commemorative cake.

The ballet company should be Nina's refuge, but her instructor, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is pushing her to lose herself in the dual part. He knows she can perform the White Swan to perfection, but he wants to see another side of her—less controlled, less "perfect" and much more passionate—as the Black Swan. So he grabs her, kisses and fondles her, telling her she needs to seduce audiences the way he has seduced her. Later, he tells her to "live a little" by learning to "touch" herself.

Nina takes Thomas' advice to heart. She wants to make the most of her starring role and rise to fame, avoiding the pitfalls into which the company's former top star, Beth (Winona Ryder), has fallen. She also befriends one of the company's ambitious dancers, Lily (Mila Kunis), who may have ulterior motives in getting closer to Nina. Lily gets Nina away from Erica by taking her out for a night of drinking, drugs and flirting, and, in what may be the movie's most notorious scene, the two women end up having sex.

Aronofsky amps up the already heightened emotional mood of Black Swan as it approaches its finale—the premiere performance of the ballet starring Nina. The line between dreams and reality, already blurred, leaves audiences guessing as to what will become of Nina right up until the film's closing moments.

Black Swan's over-the-top tone and performances don't allow for fence-sitting; either you go with the film as it is or you don't. While the film is effective in showing one woman's descent into madness, it's also far too explicit in showing Nina's state of mind. It takes the best elements of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 adaptation on Hans Christian Anderson's The Red Shoes—the cost of giving one's all to something you love, and the role a driven mentor can play in that process, for good or ill—and adds graphic details allowed by today's "R"-rated films. For all the talk of the power of Portman's performance here (she's generating serious Oscar buzz as Best Actress), it's the rather shocking scenes of sexual ecstasy and awakening that are bound to be talked about.

These moments of Black Swan are excessive, yet during the course of the movie, Portman achieves the transformation called for by her role. Her porcelain-doll looks are a fine match for the delicate Nina and makes her conversion into the Black Swan late in the film a moment of immense cinematic power. Kunis, known mainly for her work on the sitcom That '70s Show, surprises as the ambitious Lily, while Hershey's Erica joins the pantheon of crazed, controlling cinema moms. She—and Vincent Cassel's obsessive, demanding Thomas—more than match the crazy, overheated tone of Black Swan.

The story of Black Swan isn't anything new: we've seen its backstage story, with deposed former stars, hungry rivals and pushy authority figures before. It gives Portman a chance to stretch as an actress, but the real showman, for better or worse, is director Aronofsky. His handheld camera footage and taste for extreme situations dominate the film, which is anything but subtle—or tasteful. It's certainly memorable, but in a mostly disturbing way.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  "Jesus Christ"; "my God"; several "f" words; "whore" written on a mirror; "a-s"; crude terms for male and female sex organs; "d-mn"; "holy s-it."

  • Alcohol/Drugs:  Drinking and smoking; drugs mixed in alcohol. 

  • Sex/Nudity:  Dancers are shown backstage in their bras; a man suddenly and forcibly kisses a woman and she bites his lip; a dancer removes her panties; Thomas tells Nina to go home and "touch yourself"; masturbation scenes; Nina's instructor grabs her crotch and feels her breasts; Nina takes a bath, but only her stomach is shown; man on a subway makes lascivious gestures; lesbian love scene with several seconds of oral sex depicted.

  • Violence/Crime:  A dancer trashes her dressing room, and another dancer steals things from the dressing room; vomiting; limbs snap and fingernails/toenails are cracked and bleeding; skin is peeled back; a scratch appears on Nina's shoulder; fingernail clippers cut Nina; leg wounds shown on a hospital patient; drops of blood; a woman stabs herself in the face; door slammed on a hand; a character is thrown against a mirror; a woman is stabbed with a piece of broken glass.

 
Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.