film review: BLACK SWAN

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
December 3, 2010 5:15 AM
26 Comments
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Evaluating any movie is a matter of personal taste. Filmmakers who deal in the extreme naturally provoke extreme reactions. That’s my way of saying that I couldn’t stand Black Swan. In fact, I had a violent response to the film, which I saw in its debut screening at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend.

Some people in the audience thought it was brilliant. Women I know who have spent time in the world of ballet were particularly impressed by director Darren Aronofsky’s depiction of that cloistered life. I can see that, and I certainly wouldn’t say anything negative about Natalie Portman’s vivid performance as a childlike ballerina who is battling her own womanhood, under the eagle eye of an overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey). She also falls prey to an imperious and manipulative ballet master, well played by Vincent Cassel, who is—

—famous for his sexual conquests—and equally notorious for discarding his former lovers in the troupe.

The heightened emotions of ballet make it ripe for melodrama, but that’s not what Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin (working from Heinz’s story) are out to achieve. This is a psychological horror film built, one might say, on a melodramatic foundation. It teases its audience, deliberately blurring the line between reality and fantasy, which parallels the inner torment of its main character. If you make the mistake of digesting the movie on a literal basis, you’re in for a sucker punch. This is a fever dream, punctuated by scenes of hallucination, masturbation and self-mutilation.

If one is to judge a film by how well it fulfills its intentions, then Black Swan is a success. It stands out from the crowd by dint of sheer audaciousness, and originality. On an intellectual basis, I thought it was ludicrous; on an emotional level, I found it a complete and utter turn-off.

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26 Comments

  • Jane | May 25, 2013 5:55 AMReply

    Grim, irritating and quite predictable actually. Didnt evoke any empathy for the main character, or any of the characters. Switched it off after 80mins - what a waste of an evening and money.

  • Joe | December 23, 2011 3:48 AMReply

    Now I can see why fortune 500's with no sense of anything but doling out blandness as to not offend give Leonard Maltin his soapbox "minutes". You're a critic Leonard, this is not a critique of the movie, but rather, your reaction to gore. That amounts to your sensibilities getting in the way of your so called job, which means you are a hack, by definition. Ever single "disgusting" scene listed by the people who had to google "who else hated the black swan" to feel like they aren't alone in the world (since this movie received near universal praise, from the comments and the complete and utter lack of cognitive ability (do you people really not understand the methaphors? The movie is the play, she is the swan, ugh) so I'll just come out and say that I am directing this towards the commenters) was necessary to paint the picture that they were going for, which was, as previously stated, pretty obvious to the rest of the world. Hence the amount of awards and nominations.

    And if you were in a theater that was "laughing", I suspect you live in the south, and no one respects the south which is why you don't get to watch TV without getting mad at the joke's at your expense and then somehow, despite the variety of products that mock you, call yourself "the real america!" simply because you exist in the squalor therefore it must be reality, right? That is exactly why you didn't understand this movie, and probably don't even understand what I'm talking about. Brain structure is so important, some people have it rough.

  • Jim Reinecke | July 16, 2011 7:41 AMReply

    Okay, Leonard, it took me seven months to catch up with this one and now that I have I can only say that I admire you even more than I did before. Anyone who finds this combination of schlocky Hammer horror of the early to mid-sixties and Brian De Palma at his worst brilliant is perilously close to mental dysfunction. This is NOT a movie. . .it is an all-out assault on the sensibilities of any rational filmgoer. All that it made me do (besides look for a stomach distress bag) is think of the many movies that it invokes via its characters, plot points and performances---all of which are superior to this piece of celluloid fecal matter (about the only bodily function not graphically depicted here, by the way). Portman wins a Best Actress Oscar for this over-the-top performance? Spare me! Nicole Kidman in RABBIT HOLE should have copped that statuette with her wonderfully controlled turn as a woman with something to be disturbed about as opposed to this ninny. Vincent Cassel was so obnoxious as the slave-driver director that at the film's 20-minute mark I was hoping that someone would superglue an anchor to his rather prominent schnozz and shove him into Swan Lake or the Okeefenokee Swamp are whatever body of water was readily available. Warner Baxter's Julian Marsh in 42ND STREET was about as lovable as Jimmy Stewart playing Elwood P. Dowd by comparison! And Mila Kunis may have proven that she's much more than the voice of the put-upon Meg Griffin on "Family Guy" but give the girl a break! It's not easy trying to play a role that's a combination of Lampwick and Eve Harrington all done up in a big Sapphic package. Barbara Hershey? Still lovely to look at but it was hard to accept her channeling Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Vale in NOW VOYAGER. The physical battle between her and Ms. Portman was embarrasingly over-the-top and will probably earn this bag of garbage enduring camp status in the years to come. Oh, and Winona. . .a few more roles like this and I suggest that you either change agents or bone up on your shoplifting skills again. As for Mr. Aronofsky his fondness for body piercing and mutilation is getting downright scary. I hope that he doesn't decide to direct a life of St. Sebastian in the future as I wouldn't even want to think as how he would handle that unfortunate gentlemen's martyrdom (it would probably outgore Mel Gibson's approach to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST). Yes, such a scene can be brilliant and artistic as Akira Kurosawa proved with the ballet-like demise of Toshiro Mifune in THRONE OF BLOOD but, to paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen: "Mr. Aronofsky. . .you're no Akira Kurosawa!" If I want to see a film about ballet again, I can always watch Pressburger and Powell's enchanting THE RED SHOES, but this vile, disgusting and downright stupid film will never be allowed to offend my tastes again!

  • Sandra | June 13, 2011 3:54 AMReply

    I found the film boring. The premise of the film made no sense. Why would a great choreographer choose Natalie to be the star of his new work? She is not a professional dancer (and although it's commendable that she is dancing in the film, this does not save it...) and she has ONE expression on her face from start to finish...unabashedly needy. To quote Dorothy Parker (in a review of Katherine Hepburn) she ran the gamut of emotions...from A to B. I felt like slapping her and saying "snap out of it".

  • Pete | May 16, 2011 10:12 AMReply

    Nothing appears flawed about its psychological/mental approach to a character or a real person for that matter who happens to experience this.

  • Michael | April 19, 2011 7:40 AMReply

    The main reason I hated this movie is because it's a pack of lies. No ballerina could succeed who is so deranged. No art is achieved through psychologically maiming its participants, no director worth a damn relies on anyone having any kind of sex with him in order to perfect a role, and ultimately, the film's main premise, "Perfectionism is fatal", is an amateurish viewpoint. Striving for perfection is actually quite productive, and the ones who are the most skilled at it take it in stride, realizing they will fall time and again in their hopes, accepting the high price of their efforts, and joyously experiencing the fruits of their labor, even in spite of their less than perfect performance, all the while attempting more than they are capable of. This is a film for diletantes.

  • cmmcd | April 12, 2011 1:52 AMReply

    I want to thank Mr. Maltin for his review. At least now I know there are others who hated this movie as much as I did. Besides the things that disgusted me (self mutilation, purging on camera, masturbation and lesbian oral sex) and which had no place in the story other than shock value), the plot is full of holes. If Nina had been as mentally disturbed as she appears to be in the movie, she would not have been functioning well enough to make it to dance practice every day and perform on stage, but rather under 24/7 psychiatric care. We never find out what happens to the other characters in the film, notably Nina's mother. I found it odd that she was not backstage at Nina's final performance. I agree with Tessa, this movie is garbage. I watched it on DVD but if I had been in a theater I'm certain that I would have left midway through, The R rating is puzzling too, I would have thought this merited an NC-17.

  • Kent | March 6, 2011 6:51 AMReply

    The good thing was, it didn't cost anything to see, except the three hours it took to watch with a defective dvd player, I'll never get back. Even if it had run straight through, it would have seemed interminable. When should we have turned it off? I forget now. All I could think of after it was over was Leonard Pith Garnell from "Bad Cinema". 'oh my, that was perfectly dreadful! really. really 'bad cinema'!
    I haven't seen much of Ms. Portman's work, but I love her in 'Cold Mountain' compared to this train wreck. And to correct Mike Huckaby, this is the troubling story featuring NP.
    The Balcony is closed.

  • Hats | February 13, 2011 3:43 AMReply

    I wholeheartedly agree with Leonard Maltin's opinion. Natalie Portman's performance was exceptional and the up close view of dancing revealed its dark side. However, I left the theater feeling nothing except regret that I had spent money on a film about a mentally ill girl in a tutu.

  • Patricia | January 29, 2011 10:46 AMReply

    I agree completely!!! I'd go even further to say that "Black Swan" may rank quite high in my personal Top Ten Worst Movies. Natalie Portman, physically, is well-suited to the role. Her "acting" was deplorable! I'm sure the director said "child-like" not "child-ish". Her simpering through the movie grated on my ears. Then there was Barbara Hershey doing her impression of a tightly-wound madwoman. Holding your mouth in a tight line throughout the movie is NOT acting....it's the stuff Jim Carrey became famous for. I was not alone in my opinions......every time there was a dramatic pause in the film......the audience in the movie theater broke out laughing. In fact, someone standing outside the doors may have thought we were watching a Disney film, not a supposed drama. If Ms. Portman, or anyone else connected to the film, wins at the Academy Awards.....I will never go to a film again. Doesn't really matter....there hasn't been much worth watching anyway.

  • Albert | January 29, 2011 3:37 AMReply

    I enjoyed the film (if that's the right word), but did find it disturbing. And as for the sucker punch, it's meant to have one, and it is the moment when both the main character and audience discover the truth of what happens at the end of the film. Without that sucker punch, it's just a meaningless, unpleasant motion picture. And yes, a severely delusional character can behave like that.

    Leonard Maltin seems to have a built-in aversion to unpleasantness in film. What was he expecting here, "The Nutcracker"? Well, much of "Schindler's List" was unpleasant, as is any true-life film dealing with disturbed or psychotic behavior but movies cannot all be made by Disney or Pixar, and they can't all be "The Wizard of Oz" either. If you make a psychological study of a sympathetic but extremely disturbed character you are going to have to show them doing some hard-to-stomach things.

  • tessa | January 26, 2011 9:08 AMReply

    I praise you Leonard for not praising this wanna be artistic garbage. During most of the movie, I felt very uncomfortable. Not because of the graphic images, but because the movie has no substance. Take away the sex, blood, and hallucinations, and there is not much left to view. I love abstract movies that are open to interpretation, but Black Swan is more grotesuqe than poetic, more confusing than intriguing, and just plain boring. I even like the psychological theme of mutation of the personality, but where do we draw the line between a horror movie w/ sexual content and a true psychological thriller? This is my disappointment. I feel bad for Natalie Portman for being cast in such poorly presented story. I would pay money not to watch this movie again. It would be a real stretch for me to appreciate this agonizingly absurd Hollywoodification of sex, violence, and competition to be the "little princess". I will only give props to this movie for being unpredictable. The end product, however, is a wild duck chase that leaves me void of any catharsis.

  • paul | January 25, 2011 1:00 AMReply

    Be warned. Black Swan is wretched. Its not a "psychological thriller" as most reviewers call it. IT IS A HORROR FILM plain and simple. Everyone around the main character Nina acts out the worst human behavior imaginable. Want examples? How about an older main masturbating on a subway to "entice" Nina. How about Nina masturbating in bed while her mother sleeps in a chair in the same room. How about Nina getting drugged and doing it (perhaps?) with a couple of guys in a bar. Doesn't this sound lovely. And lets not forget all the blood. Bloody hands, bloody fingers, bloody stomachs, bloody floors. This movie had horror elements on par with the Exorcist- I am not exaggerating. Ballet? Who gives a $%&*. I'll never watch ballet again after seeing this. I feel like Alex in A Clockwork Orange" who couldn't listen to Beethoven any more after being tortured while listening to his music. This movie is not bad - it is torture. Its a disgusting portrayal of the human condition and done strictly for exploitation. If you want to see how far Hollywood has fallen off the tracks, go see this piece of garbage.

  • Gennie | January 10, 2011 4:33 AMReply

    I generaly agree with Leonard Maltin regarding The Black Swan. To me it turned out to be a bad film, extremely overrated, excessive in every way, and very disappointing, especially after reading all of the glowing reviews by so many well-regarded critics. The violence and disturbing content of the film was expected from having read the reviews, but "putting everything but the kitchen sink" into the film purely for the shock effect is not the mark of a good director. The basic premise of the film was very intriguing and could have been a great film, but it was cheapened by so much transperency. Also, I know that everyone will disagree with me, but, as beautiful as she is, and hard as she tried, I was not greatly impressed by Natalie Portman's acting. Even for someone drifting into psychosis, she was too hysterical throughout the whole movie. I do highly commend her for all of the hard work and training that went into her dance scenes, but it would have been much more convincing to have used a professional ballerina to do more of the close ups for Odette's role (the White Swan), since that was supposed to be Nina's forte. At best, her performance was like what an aspiring good student would do at a dance school recital, but not for a professional debut. She was too stiff, cautious, and wooden, without the fluidity and budding artistry that was needed, and that the ballet master was imploring her to project for Odile. I was sooooo disappointed in what could have been an excellent film. Of course, this is definitely a minority opinion, from all of the comments I have been reading, and will not stop the acolades from being bestowed upon it.

  • Bridget Deal | January 10, 2011 2:09 AMReply

    Black swan is a very artistic and beautiful film. It shows the audience disturbing images to make them understand what a screwed up life Nina (Natalie Portman) has. By watching and understanding this film it makes people realize what makes us uneasy and uncomfortable. If you see this film you have to take it for what it is, a psychological thriller that takes us very deep into the mind of a disturbed ballerina. Also the special effects are minimal compared to our modern day films for example tron, Spiderman, and transformers. Because of these big box office films we cannot look at piece of art like black swan and be satisfied.

  • H-Man | January 7, 2011 8:25 AMReply

    @ Brett, spoken like a true Maltin ass-kisser. "Inception" over-praised? "Black Swan" a disaster? I guess you should stick to your "Iron Man 2" and your "Shrek 4" and leave those rare good, intelligent films like "Black Swan" and "Inception" to people who can appreciate the. It's time for Maltin to retire.

  • Scott Sheperd | December 28, 2010 11:24 AMReply

    I totally agree with the review. This movie is a disaster. Hollywood's take on psychological issues with a little girl on girl action. She touched herself. She's free! She's free! She can be the black swan!

  • Brad | December 16, 2010 1:30 AMReply

    I wish people would lay off Leonard Maltin. I get the sense that his film tastes are a bit convservative. And I guess I would define mine as more 'liberal'. However, regardless of this, I think his movie guide is one of the best out there - it even tops the Time Out Guide (don't get me started on theirs!). In fact, I nicknamed Leonard's guide 'The Bible' - because most of the reviews/ratings are right on target. BTW, I met him at the MPAA - and he's just as nice in person as he is on camera... ;)

  • Rick Chung | December 13, 2010 7:30 AMReply

    Natalie Portman shines in the BLACK SWAN

  • Brett | December 12, 2010 5:06 AMReply

    Maltin should be commended for his independent-minded reviews. Inception is a vastly overpraised film that relies on special effectis rather than conceptual insight into the human mind. Maltin is one of the few critics who sees it for what it is.

    And on this film? I couldn't agree more. What a disasterous film this was.

  • H-Man | December 12, 2010 3:04 AMReply

    Mr. Maltin, someone said that given your negative reviews of a number of genuinely good films, many of which are the best films of the past few years, perhaps your tastes are a tad out of touch with modern sensibilities, and reading this review makes me agree with that even more. Excluding the parts where you say "I couldn't stand this movie" and you last sentence, I would swear this was a positive review.

  • T.J. Royal | December 7, 2010 12:41 AMReply

    I appreciate your upfront appraisal and honesty, Leonard, with your extreme reaction to this particular piece. That's an excellent way for me to gauge whether or not I think I'd be a fan of this film, as I get the feeling that you usually tend to shy your highest favor away from films that turn out particularly grotesque.

    I'm a big fan of Aronofsky's Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, but The Wrestler left me cold. Maybe this will be another of his I can sink my teeth into.

  • Tom | December 6, 2010 11:58 AMReply

    Maltin also gave bad reviews to WALL-E, The Shinning, Terminator 2 (which is far more superior than the original), Forrest Gump, and The Usual Suspects. Guess that means "Black Swan" will be a master piece.

  • Matthew | December 6, 2010 8:14 AMReply

    I will reserve comment on Black Swan because I haven't seen it. Raging Bull is a masterpiece and my personal favorite by Martin Scorsese; unfortunately, his Taxi Driver is an overrated movie considered a classic much like A Clockwork Orange. Neither Driver nor Orange has aged well, and each picture moves at a snail's pace. Inception just doesn't work in spite of its visual flair. The Dark Knight doesn't hold up in repeated viewings like its predecessor Batman Begins. Then there's Iron Man, which works surprisingly well, but Tony Stark is the only well rounded character. Everyone else is a cardboard cutout.

  • Ralph | December 5, 2010 9:11 AMReply

    This is coming from the guy who didn't like Inception, Taxi Driver, The Dark Knight, Blade Runner, and Iron Man so how could you ever be taken seriously. If you really hate those type of movies don't show up in the first place.

  • ralch | December 3, 2010 7:02 AMReply

    I think the film is flawed, and evidently so, but I am among those who were swept off my feet. Yes it is audacious, and intellectually it poses the problem of not merging the fantasy into the reality as seamlessly as it should have. It feels rather hollywoodized in that regard. But the reason why it worked for me is because it is focused like a ballet: in broad, polarized, strokes that echo the emotional outburst of Tchaikovsky's masterfully romantic (and Portman's character is nothing if not romantic at her core, amid all the psychological detailing) work. It asks --and mostly succeeds, I think-- the audience to be part of this operatic (balletic?), forceful experience.

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