TIFF Journal: ‘Black Swan’ – No Ugly Ducklings Here

As I write this post on Tuesday afternoon, I’ve only had time to see one movie so far today. However, it’s perhaps the biggest, most buzzed-about film in the festival – and also the one that you, our readers, told me you were most interested to have me report on. Yes, it’s Darren Aronofsky’s surreal psychological thiller ‘Black Swan’. Does it live up to those crazy trailers or the hype? Read on to find out.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina, an emotionally fragile ballerina who’s been vying for the coveted lead role in her troupe’s production of ‘Swan Lake’. She has to cope with a controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), a lecherous and demanding director (Vincent Cassel), and another up-and-coming ballerina (Mila Kunis) who acts like her friend but may be plotting to stab her in the back. Mostly, she has to cope with her own quickly deteriorating mental condition. The more successful Nina gets, the more stress that’s heaped upon her, and the more she loses her shit.

‘Black Swan’ is the latest entry in the “Women Going Crazy” genre that stretches back to films like ‘Persona’ and ‘Repulsion‘, as well as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous 19th Century feminist short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. Perhaps its strongest modern antecedent is Satoshi Kon‘s anime film ‘Perfect Blue’, which director Aronofsky explicitly referenced in his earlier movie ‘Requiem for a Dream’. Just like ‘Perfect Blue’, ‘Black Swan’ is about an artistic performer (in that case, a pop star) who starts to lose her sense of reality when her insecurities and paranoia overtake all of her other rational thoughts. Soon, she can’t tell what’s real from what’s in her head – and, due to the way the story is told, neither can we in the audience.

Portman is quite excellent. This is perhaps the best performance she’s ever delivered as an adult. Aronofsky has smartly tailored the role to play off her usual stiffness, and her typical inability to let loose and truly inhabit a character. Those weaknesses turn out to be strengths in this case, because they perfectly represent this character’s personality. Mila Kunis is also very good. (Yes, the two actresses also have a pretty steamy Sapphic moment.)

The film is very visually arresting and turns pretty surreal, but is never quite as pretentious or alienating as ‘The Fountain‘. The story is clear and comprehensible, even as it dishes out many ambiguities. The climax is quite emotionally powerful.

The audiences here at TIFF have loved the movie. The expectation is that it will claim top honors by the end of the week. However, I suspect that this is the type of picture that will earn raves at festivals and then fizzle in general release. I can’t see a mass audience latching onto something like this. But stranger things have happened, I suppose.

Personally, I liked ‘Black Swan’ a lot, but I still think that ‘Let Me In’ is the best thing I’ve seen here so far.

1 comment

  1. BostonMA

    good news that Black Swan is good stuff but it’s funny…i never thought i’d read that the remake of Let the Right One In is better than DA new’s film let alone it being the best of the festival but it’s all good news. hopefully horror and semi-horror films like these will help bring back greatness in the genre (aka the return of David Lynch).

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