Blu-ray Review: ‘Black Swan’

After a more than satisfying character piece and study on the subject of artistic peaking and anxiety, Darren Aronofsky returns to the world of performers with Black Swan, a companion piece to The Wrestler that covers similar ground in some extraordinarily different ways. In some respects, it’s a prequel to the Mickey Rourke starrer; instead of focusing on the death and rebirth of an entertainer’s career, we’re given a glimpse into the life of a struggling up-and-comer dying to start one. It’s true that many films have covered the same subject, but I guarantee you’ve never seen it presented in quite the same way.
Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a young ballerina who fantasizes of taking the lead in her company’s performance of Swan Lake, a role that requires her to play both the pure and virginal Swan Queen as well as the seductive and sinister Black Swan. Nina is disgustingly perfect and certainly suitable for the more innocent of the parts, but her demanding director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) thinks she doesn’t have the darker nature to encompass the sexually charged doppelganger. He casts her anyway, but without the ability to stylistically improvise and let loose in her performance, Nina finds herself unable to reach the heights of Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), her employer’s former star who was forced into early retirement. Newly arrived dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), on the other hand, possesses the wild streak Nina does not, and embodies the persona she needs to succeed as the Black Swan. Struggling to identify her as friend or foe, Nina attempts to lose herself in the role without destroying herself.

Surface wise, Black Swan takes on the same visual presentation as The Wrestler‘s grainy, voyeuristic cinematography but Matthew Libatique’s approach improves upon it greatly, adding a graceful quality to it that mirrors the play’s whimsical choreography. Frequent Aronofsky collaborator and composer Clint Mansell created a score that works hand-in-hand with the film’s traditional horror sound design, contemporizing Swan Lake’s compositions with darker ambiance without losing its classical performance hall beauty.

Most impressive about the film, however, is the script by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz, which is comprised of everything from psychological and body horror to sexual awakenings and self-preservation. It’s clear early on that Black Swan isn’t beholden to any one genre, never giving viewers an opportunity to confidently predict what sort of terrible hallucination or actual event will befall Nina. As her perception of reality degrades, nothing can be concretely identified as an actual occurrence, even after it seems it has been. The four main female characters in the film all act as different parts of Nina’s personality, as if her mind has been broken from the stress of perfection, a mental instability previously explored by Aronofsky in Pi. Nina, the subdued and innocent perfectionist, is only part of a greater construct, sharing equal space – but not necessarily screen time – with Lily, her dark side that tries to steal the spotlight; her well-intended but often domineering and controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), who gave up her career and is living vicariously through her daughter; and Beth, who struggled to retain her star status after her fifteen minutes were up, a scenario Nina fears will be happening to her sooner than expected. Nina’s psyche, or what of it that may or may not exist, intermittently makes everyone she crosses paths with her enemy, even herself.

Fox’s 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode is extremely faithful to its theatrical presentation, which is good news for me and bad news for people who hate grain. Black Swan is a beautiful looking film, but the cameras used – Canon DSLRs and a 16mm Arriflex – tend to give everything a documentary-type look. That’s all fine and dandy except that the 16mm is extremely grainy and the DSLRs are 1080p high-def cameras, so there’s a lot of contrast throughout the film. The transfer is exceptional in the sense that it perfectly captures that – and the dual visual presentation could also be attributed to the dual personalities in the film – and there’s no noticeable DNR or edge enhancement to give it a glossy look, which was clearly not the intention of Aronofsky and Libatique. The DTS-HD 5.1 mix works really well across all channels, retaining the film’s ambiance without overusing bass or overblowing Mansell’s score, which is one of Black Swan‘s highlights. Aside from the absence of a commentary track, the special features cover all the film’s bases and are informative.

Those expecting the nightmarish, hallucinatory journey of Suspiria because of the film’s setting won’t have their wish fulfilled, but should be equally enamored with Aronofsky’s cautionary tale of pushing yourself to the limit that shares more in common with Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy and the early works of De Palma and Cronenberg than any performer-centric film. Portman’s turn as Nina is poetically haunting and quite possibly the greatest – and most demanding – performance of her career. Moments into Black Swan, it’s obvious that this is just as much a passion project as it was for Aronofsky, resulting in a collaborative team perfectly suited for exploring the duality of human nature and the struggle of good and evil in a film that is as beautiful as it is harsh.

Special Features

Metamorphosis (48:55) – Running almost an hour in length, this behind-the-scenes doc focuses on the process of making the film from the crew’s perspective and not the actors’ – though, they do have some interviews spliced in throughout. What’s really impressive about Metamorphosis is that Aronofsky and the producers talk about how small the budget was and how they worked around certain limitations, but nobody ever sounded like they were complaining and a lot of making-of features leave me with that sour impression. They cover a lot of bases here (cinematography, shooting in NY in the middle of winter, choreography, sFx) so there’s plenty to dig into and appreciate.

Ballet (2:33) – This featurette is kind of deceiving. Sure, they talk about the ballet itself, but it’s more a brief EPK for the film that pales in comparison to Metamorphosis.

Production Design (4:00) – After trying to court production designer Therese DePrez for years, Aronofosky finally succeeded with
Black Swan. DePrez discusses the abstract nature of the stage design, as well as the childlike and warm appearance of Nina’s bedroom.

Costume Design (3:55) – Like the previous vignette, this one features a brief chat with costume designer Amy Westcott and goes over a few points, such as the appearance of the black vs. white swan.

Profile: Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky (6:04) – Short interviews with both of the major names involved with the film that are fairly meaty. Portman focuses on the rigorous nature of her training and how she prepared, mentally and physically, for the role, while Aronofsky discusses the genesis of the project, starting with a script he was handed as Requiem For A Dream was wrapping up, and some of the director choices he made dealing with how to shoot the film.

Conversation: Preparing For The Role and Dancing With The Camera (5:28) – An interview piece where Aronofsky grills Portman about her background in dancing (she attended jazz, ballet, etc. classes when she was younger) and how she applied that to her “re-training” and performance in the film. It’s a nice, friendly conversation between the two, and it got a chuckle or two out of me.

Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character With Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, and Direct Effect Darren Aronofsky (22:56) – Some floating head interviews with the cast and director that were aired at some point on The Fox Movie Channel. The pieces with Ryder, Cassel, and Hershey are worth watching since they don’t have a strong presence on the disc otherwise, but the chats with Portman and Aronofsky have a fair amount of overlap with other featurettes on the release.

Film: 5/5

Blu-Ray: 4/5