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Black Swan is a 2010 American psychological thriller film directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie PortmanVincent Cassel and Mila Kunis. Its plot revolves around a production of Tchaikovsky‘s Swan Lake ballet by a prestigious New York City company. The production requires a ballerina to play both the innocent White Swan and the sensual Black Swan. One dancer, Nina (Portman), is a perfect fit for the White Swan, while Lily (Kunis) has a personality that matches the Black Swan. When the two compete for the parts, Nina finds a dark side to herself.

Aronofsky conceived the premise by connecting his viewings of a production of Swan Lake with an unrealized screenplay about understudies and the notion of being haunted by a double, similar to the folklore surrounding doppelgängers. Aronofsky cites Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Double” as another inspiration for the film. The director also consideredBlack Swan a companion piece to his 2008 film The Wrestler, with both films involving demanding performances for different kinds of art. He and Portman first discussed the project in 2000, and after a brief attachment to Universal StudiosBlack Swan was produced in New York City in 2009 by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Portman and Kunis trained in ballet for several months prior to filming and notable figures from the ballet world helped with film production to shape the ballet presentation.

The film premiered as the opening film for the 67th Venice International Film Festival on September 1, 2010. It had a limited release in the United States starting December 3, 2010 and opened nationwide on December 17. Black Swan received critical praise upon its release, particularly for Portman’s performance and Aronofsky’s direction. Portman won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the film, as well as many other Best Actress awards in several guilds and festivals, while Aronofsky was nominated for Best Director. In addition, the film itself received a nomination for Best Picture.

 

Plot

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young dancer with a prestigious New York City ballet company. She lives with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer, now amateur artist, who stopped her career at 28 when she became pregnant with Nina.

The ballet company is preparing for a production of Swan Lake. The director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), has to cast a new principal dancer as he has forced his present principal dancer, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), into retirement. The lead must be able to portray both the innocent, fragile White Swan and her dark, sensual, evil twin, the Black Swan. Nina is selected to compete for the part alongside several other dancers. After her audition goes badly, she visits Thomas to ask him to reconsider and give her the role. He tells her that her rigid technique makes her ideal for the White Swan, but she lacks the passion to dance the Black Swan. He then forces a kiss on her until she bites him. Later, she is chosen for the Swan Queen. An intoxicated Beth angrily confronts Thomas and Nina, and she is later hit by a car and seriously injured in what Thomas believes was a suicide attempt.

Nina begins to witness strange happenings around her. Thomas, meanwhile, becomes increasingly critical of Nina’s “frigid” dancing as the Black Swan and tells her she should stop being such a perfectionist and simply lose herself in the role. She makes the acquaintance of another dancer in the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), whom Thomas described as having the qualities Nina lacks. The relationship between the two dancers cools because of Lily’s indiscretions, but to make up for it, Lily appears at Nina’s door and invites her for a night out. Nina is hesitant at first, but decides to join Lily against her mother’s wishes. While out, Lily offers Nina a capsule of Ecstasy. Upon returning to the apartment, Nina has another fight with her mother. She barricades herself in her room and has sex with Lily. Next morning, Nina wakes up alone and late for rehearsal. When she arrives at the studio, she finds Lily dancing as the Swan Queen. Furious, she confronts Lily and asks her why she did not wake her up in the morning. Lily states that she spent the night with a man whom she met at the club, and it is revealed that Nina imagined the whole sex episode.

Nina’s hallucinations become stronger during rehearsals and at home, which culminates in a violent fight with her mother after which she passes out. Concerned about Nina’s erratic behavior, her mother tries to prevent her from attending the opening performance, but Nina forces her way through and insists that she can dance. Lily and Thomas are puzzled about her appearance since Nina’s mother had called saying she was sick.

The first act goes well until Nina is distracted during a lift by a hallucination and the Prince drops her. Distraught, she returns to her dressing room and finds Lily dressed as the Black Swan. As Lily announces her intention to play the Black Swan, she transforms into Nina herself. Nina and her double struggle, and Nina shoves her double into the mirror shattering it. She grabs a shard of glass and stabs her double in the stomach. Nina sees that the body is Lily’s. She hides the body, returns to the stage, and dances the Black Swan passionately and sensually. Growing black feathers, her arms become black wings as she finally loses herself and is transformed into a black swan. At the end of the act, she receives a standing ovation from the audience. When she leaves the stage, she finds Thomas and the rest of the cast congratulating her on her stunning performance. Nina takes him by surprise and kisses him.

Back in her dressing room preparing for the final act, the dying of the White Swan, there is a knock on her door. She opens it to see Lily, who has come to congratulate her on her performance as the Black Swan. Nina realizes her fight with Lily, just as all the strange visions she had experienced, were hallucinations, but sees the mirror is still shattered. She notices a wound on her body and realizes that she stabbed herself, not Lily. Back on stage, she dances passionately and seamlessly as the White Swan. In the last moments of the ballet, when the White Swan throws herself off a cliff, she spots her mother weeping in the audience. The theater erupts in thunderous applause as Nina falls. As Thomas and the rest of the cast enthusiastically congratulate her on her performance, Lily gasps in horror to see that Nina is bleeding. As Nina lies wounded, the film closes with her staring up at the stage lights, whispering, “I felt it – Perfect – It was perfect,” as the screen fades to white and the audience chants her name.

 

Production

Conception

Darren Aronofsky first became interested in ballet when his sister studied dance at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. The basic idea for the film started when he hired screenwriters to rework a screenplay called The Understudy, which was about off-Broadway actors and explored the notion of being haunted by a double. Aronofsky said the screenplay had elements of the film All About EveRoman Polanski‘s film The Tenant, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s novella The Double. The director had also seen numerous productions of Swan Lake, and he connected the duality of the White Swan and the Black Swan to his script. When researching for production ofBlack Swan, he found ballet to be “a very insular world” whose dancers were “not impressed by movies”. Regardless, the director found active and inactive dancers to share their experiences with him. He also stood backstage to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Aronofsky called Black Swan a companion piece to his previous film The Wrestler, recalling one of his early projects about a love affair between a wrestler and a ballerina. He eventually separated the wrestling and the ballet worlds as “too much for one movie”. He compared the two films: “Wrestling some consider the lowest art—if they would even call it art—and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.” About the psychological thriller nature of Black Swan, actress Natalie Portman compared the film’s tone to Polanski’s 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby,  while Aronofsky said Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) were “big influences” on the final film. Actor Vincent Cassel also compared Black Swan to Polanski’s early works and additionally compared it to David Cronenberg‘s early works.

In 2010, Aronofsky acknowledged there being similarities between the 1997 anime film Perfect Blue and his film Black Swan, but said it was not an influence.

 

Development and filming

 

Aronofsky and Portman first discussed the ballet film in 2000, though the script was yet to be written. He told her about the love scene between competing ballet dancers, and Portman recalled, “I thought that was very interesting because this movie is in so many ways an exploration of an artist’s ego and that narcissistic sort of attraction to yourself and also repulsion with yourself.”  On the decade’s wait before production, she said, “The fact that I had spent so much time with the idea … allowed it to marinate a little before we shot.”  When Aronofsky proposed a detailed outline of Black Swan to Universal Pictures, the studio decided to fast-track development of the project in January 2007. The project did not come together at the studio, and Aronofsky would go on to shoot The Wrestler instead. After finishingThe Wrestler in 2008, he asked Mark Heyman, who had worked for him on the film, to write Black Swan. By June 2009, Universal had placed the project in turnaround, generating attention from other studios and specialty divisions, particularly with actress Portman attached to star. Black Swan began development under Protozoa Pictures and Overnight Productions, the latter financing the film. In July 2009, Kunis was cast.

Fox Searchlight Pictures distributed Black Swan and gave the film a production budget of $10–12 million. Principal photography was achieved using Super 16 mm cameras and began in New York City toward the end of 2009. Part of filming took place at the Performing Arts Center atState University of New York at Purchase. Aronofsky filmed Black Swan with a muted palette and a grainy style, which he intended to be similar to The Wrestler.[30]

Costume design controversy

Amy Westcott is credited as the costume designer and received several award nominations. A publicized controversy arose regarding the question of who had designed 40 ballet costumes for Portman and the dancers. An article in the British The Independent suggested those costumes had actually been created by Rodarte‘s Kate and Laura Mulleavy. Westcott challenged that view and stated that in all only 7 costumes, among them the black and white swan, had been created in a collaboration between Rodarte, Westcott, and Aronofsky. Furthermore, the corps ballet’s costumes were designed by Zack Brown (for the American Ballet Theater), and slightly adapted by Westcott and her costume design department. Westcott said: “Controversy is too complimentary a word for two people using their considerable self-publicising resources to loudly complain about their credit once they realized how good the film is.”

 

Dance double controversy

ABT dancer Sarah Lane served as a “dance double” for Portman in the film.[33] In a March 3 blog entry for Dance Magazine, editor-in-chief Wendy Perron asked: “Do people really believe that it takes only one year to make a ballerina? We know that Natalie Portman studied ballet as a kid and had a year of intensive training for the film, but that doesn’t add up to being a ballerina. However, it seems that many people believe that Portman did her own dancing in Black Swan.”[34][35] This led to responses from Benjamin Millepied and Aronofsky, who both defended Portman as well as a response from Lane on the subject.

 

Critical reaction

Black Swan has received widespread acclaim from film critics.  Review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes reports that 88% of 255 critics have given the film a positive review, holding an average score of 8.2/10 with particular praise for Portman’s performance. According to the website, the film’s critical consensus is, “Bracingly intense, passionate, and wildly melodramatic, Black Swan glides on Darren Aronofsky’s bold direction – and a bravura performance from Natalie Portman.”  Review aggregate Metacritic has given the film a weighted score of 79, based on 41 reviews, indicating “Generally favorable reviews”. 

In September 2010, Entertainment Weekly reported that based on reviews from the film’s screening at the Venice Film Festival, “[Black Swan] is already set to be one of the year’s most love-it-or-hate-it movies.” Leonard Maltin, in his blog Movie Crazy, admitted that he “couldn’t stand” the film, despite praising Natalie Portman’s performance.  Reuters described the early response to the film as “largely positive” with Portman’s performance being highly praised. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that “the film divided critics. Some found its theatricality maddening, but most declared themselves ‘swept away’.”

Kurt Loder of Reason Magazine called the film “wonderfully creepy,” and wrote that “it’s not entirely satisfying; but it’s infused with the director’s usual creative brio, and it has a great dark gleaming look.” Mike Goodridge from Screen Daily called Black Swan “alternately disturbing and exhilarating” and described the film as a hybrid of The Turning Point and Polanski’s films Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. Goodridge described Portman’s performance, “[She] is captivating as Nina … she captures the confusion of a repressed young woman thrown into a world of danger and temptation with frightening veracity.” The critic also commended Cassel, Kunis, and Hershey in their supporting roles, particularly comparing Hershey to Ruth Gordon in the role of “the desperate, jealous mother”. Goodridge praised Libatique’s cinematography with the dance scenes and the psychologically “unnerving” scenes: “It’s a mesmerising psychological ride that builds to a gloriously theatrical tragic finale as Nina attempts to deliver the perfect performance.”

Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter gave the film a mixed review. He wrote, “[Black Swan] is an instant guilty pleasure, a gorgeously shot, visually complex film whose badness is what’s so good about it. You might howl at the sheer audacity of mixing mental illness with the body-fatiguing, mind-numbing rigors of ballet, but its lurid imagery and a hellcat competition between two rival dancers is pretty irresistible.” Honeycutt commended Millepied’s “sumptuous” choreography and Libatique’s “darting, weaving” camera work. The critic said of the thematic mashup, “Aronofsky … never succeeds in wedding genre elements to the world of ballet … White Swan/Black Swan dynamics almost work, but the horror-movie nonsense drags everything down the rabbit hole of preposterousness.”  Similarly, in a piece for The Huffington PostRob Kirkpatrick praised Portman’s performance but compared the film’s story to that of Showgirls (1995) and Burlesque(2010) while concluding Black Swan is “simply higher-priced cheese, Aronofsky’s camembert to [Burlesque director Steve] Antin’s cheddar. The Canadian Press also reported that some Canadian ballet dancers felt that the film depicted dancers negatively and exaggerated elements of their lives but gave Portman high marks for her dance technique.  The Guardian interviewed five ballet dancers, Tamara RojoLauren CuthbertsonEdward WatsonElena Glurjidze,  and Cassa Pancho, and they commented that some movements in the film are not professional, and the representation of the profession is stereotypical and inaccurate.[71]

Black Swan has appeared on many critics top ten lists of 2010 and is frequently considered to be one of the greatest films of the year.[72] It was also featured on the American Film Institute‘s 10 Movies of the Year. On January 25, 2011 the film was nominated for five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing) and won one for Portman’s performance.

 

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