Warnings: long, graphic sex scenes, some light self-mutilation (if it can even be considered light), alcohol, drugs
The "Horror" tag was added because some parts really do look like they belong in a horror movie, while the "mindfuck" one is used solely because I was too lazy to create an extra "psychological" tag and classify the ways in which one can be squicked.
After the (very successful) marketing campaign, I was expecting to see a disturbing, mindbending psychological thriller that I would discuss with my friends for days; needless to say, it turned out the other way around. Even though I keep telling myself not to have high expectations because I'm surely to be disappointed, I keep breaking that rule for "shinies", movies that look intriguing based on the trailers, posters and other promotional materials. This one certainly delivered in that aspect; unfortunately, I found it quite lacking in others.
Note: this wasn't on my to-review list, I spontaneously decided to write about it.
Nina Sayers has been practicing ballet all her life, under strict supervision of her mother, a former ballerina who hopes to live out her lost "glory days" through her daughter. Her biggest desire is to dance the part of the swan queen in the upcoming modern adaptation of Swan Lake, but she lacks the confidence to "let go" and truly feel the role; as a consequence, she perfects the part of the White Swan but cannot channel the Black Swan. However, when the ballerina set to dance as the swan queen (Beth) suffers an accident, Nina is given the role. This marks her descent into madness, as she desperately tries to succeed in the highly competitive world of ballet, where no one is to be trusted. Not even her own psyche.
Rehearsals for the new Swan Lake.
The actors were good for the parts they were cast in and for the most part convincing. If anything, the writing is the one to blame for making the characters so shallow. Natalie Portman looked great as a very fragile dancer swinging back and forth between sanity and delusions, albeit too fragile to be believable at times (in the real world of dancing, being so timid would most likely lead to being torn to shreds by the competition). I also appreciated the fact that she trained so seriously for this role: 8 hours a day, everyday, for an entire year. Even though the full body shots are done using a body double, the close-ups (waist-up) are entirely Portman dancing, acceptably for an amateur.
One scene caught my attention and had me going "wow", and that is her completed pseudo-realistic "transformation" into the Black Swan, near the end. Nina, dressed as the Black Swan, gradually transforms while on-stage, during a well-filmed and CG-ed sequence where her arms are covered by feathers, finally becoming completely swan-like.
The sex scenes are surprisingly well done, especially one scene involving Nina in her bedroom, after waking up. I won't give any more details, since the end of this scene is most likely the only funny moment in the entire movie, even if it's funny in a mostly creepy way.
What can I say, I love the costumes and sets.
And to continue with the eye candy, the costumes certainly are beautiful and detailed, with emphasis on make-up and certain objects such as jewelry. The soundtrack, on the other hand, I found unimpressive; it didn't bother me, but it didn't catch my attention either. Aside from the obvious excerpts from Swan Lake, there's not much to report on.
Oh boy, this is gonna take a while.
Personally, I love it when directors use symbolism. It keeps me guessing and looking for possible hidden or alternate meanings and connections to other events in the movie (or outside of it, in the case of more obscure references).
This is not the case here. Can I even call it "symbolism" if it's shoved in my face? Cliches abound and I won't list them all because that would mean giving away most of what happens, but I was bothered by how much "obvious symbolism" was used. I felt that I didn't even need to think, that everything would be explained as you would explain to a 4-year-old why it's wrong to cross the street when the traffic light's red. Every time I felt like the director could leave something unexplained and create some doubt, he turned around and hammered me in the head with an explanation that made the previous situation boring. In spite of this, my main gripe is with the characters.
Feel the pain!
Simply put, the characters don't evolve. At all. There are none that we, as the audience, can relate to. Nina is unrealistically weak (mentally speaking) and whiny throughout the whole movie (aside from the Black Swan sequences); Lily, who is supposed to be the antagonist, is hardly original in her plans to snatch Nina's role for herself; Leroy, the choreographer, is the typical douche who torments the Damsel-In-Distress Protagonist; finally, Nina's mother, had she shown religious fanaticism, would have been pulled straight out of Carrie. The other characters are fairly unimportant and even less developed, looking more like background extras than actual participants in the plot.
Too bad, because they look fairly good
Now I don't want to come across as someone who absolutely must have a character to identify with in order to enjoy a movie. No, I just wanted a character that I would be interested in observing, even if I hated them. Sadly, I didn't feel anything for Nina or anyone else, at any point. I could care less if they died or not, because I wouldn't miss them. Nina was mentally damaged to begin with and only got worse, Lily didn't show any other side other than Bitchy Adversary, and everyone else is shown entirely in black or white, with no grey middle ground; the only remotely interesting character was Nina's mother, who could be genuinely creepy at times and who wasn't bothersome as long as she was on screen.
As for the acting, Natalie Portman was grating on my nerves most of the time - not because of her skills as an actress, but because of that "pained" expression she wore throughout the entire movie. I want some variation, not just tragedy and angst; after seeing her in V for Vendetta, I'm sure she can pull off a dramatic character well, but the writing gets in the way here and waters down what could have been a complex and puzzling character. I don't want to see Nicolas Cage here (whom, I believe, has the same expression in every movie of his).
Some situations were overused, such as the numerous scenes with Nina either scratching herself or doing something along those lines to hurt herself. I think we pretty much understood it the first time it was shown and didn't need to see more; again, subtle would have been better. These "self-torture" scenes are used so often that they stop being effective - after the third one, I started asking myself if they were added in solely for shock value or to convince people to come see this movie, like a certain scene involving lesbian sex which was highly metaphorical but at the same time quite long and graphic.
And to continue harping on the quality of scenes and writing, I'll say a few words about the delusions themselves. Most of the movie suffers from the director overexplaining things and, as a paradox, from too much ambiguity. From this point of view, the (naturally tragic) ending can be interpreted in two ways: one of them is terribly cliche and while the other is more appropriate, it would need a few more minutes of film to give hints as to what happens. After thinking about it for a while, I decided to accept the second type of ending, even though the way the director filmed the actual thing points to the first type.
Gorgeous visuals, less-than-stellar execution.
The Plain WTF (spoilers concerning one of Nina's delusions)
Alright, this takes the cake for the most idiotic moment I've seen in a while. At one point, after discovering feathers "growing" out of her back, Nina's legs simply snap backwards at the knees. Of course, this is meant to symbolize her further transformation into a swan, but it was so poorly done that I couldn't help but stare at the screen with a dumb "what did I just see here?" expression. Seriously, if you can't do good and believable CGI, stick to the (better) suspense and imply rather than show.
Thomas Leroy: You could be brilliant, but you're a coward.
Nina: I'm sorry.
Thomas Leroy: [yelling] Now stop saying that! That's exactly what I'm talking about. Stop being so fucking weak!
Lily: I don't think we ever officially met. I'm Lily.
Nina: Hi, Nina.
Lily: Yes, our new swan queen! You must be so excited. Are you freaking out?
Nina: [chuckles] Yeah.
Lily: Yeah, it's okay. I would be losing my mind.
Major personality change ahoy!
Verdict and recommendations
When it was over, I felt cheated. I had pressed play hoping to see something mindbending and deep, but was instead treated to almost two hours of spoonfed symbols and overdone plot devices. Coming up with something new at this point is extremely difficult, as most stories have already been told and what we're seeing nowadays are just retellings with a different coat (and don't get me started on remakes produced 2 years after the original came out). I'm aware of all this and expected to see a story I knew I was overall familiar with, but told differently, with something that sets it apart from the other versions. All I got was a movie using situations that reminded me of at least 5 others, except that those other 5 did it better. And so you don't think I'm bluffing, I'll name a few that deal with mental illnesses in a better, less cheesy and more convincing manner: Shutter Island, Memento, A Beautiful Mind and, of course, Fight Club.
In the end, I can see why some people like this: it looks good, the atmosphere is (for the most part) tense and actually effective and the CGI is not always bad. However, for me, the bad points outweighed the good. At one point during watching it, I was thinking whether I could rewatch it or not. I thought that I probably could. However, after a while, I changed my mind: I will not be seeing this again. After browsing the IMDb boards to see others' opinion of this, I agree with one: this is mostly a movie made to make people feel intelligent for watching it. It looks profound and serious, but upon a closer inspection turns out to be quite easy to understand and doesn't require a lot of focusing.
I'm frustrated after writing this review. I truly wanted to love this movie. Unfortunately, upon re-reading what I wrote, I just can't bring myself to do it.
Originality + creativity: 1 point
Actors: 1.5 points
Soundtrack: 1 point
Special effects/Natural flow: 1 point
How much I enjoyed it: 1 point
My rating: (5.5 out of 10, rounded to 5)
Black Swan on IMDb.com