Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2010
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel
Film review by Donovan Richards
Keep (Over) Working
We all find times when the pressures of success feel like a tightening vice in our stomach. The desire for excellence is motivating, consuming, and at times, it physically alters our lives in mostly deleterious ways.
Black Swan director, Darren Aronofsky, interprets these notions on the big screen. Similar to previous psychological thrillers directed by Aronofsky, such as Pi and Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan dives into the dark outcomes of overwork, including stress, paranoia, and, schizophrenia.
The film follows a brittle and timid ballerina named Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). The beginning of a new ballet season provides artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) with reason to insert fresh blood in the role of prima ballerina for Swan Lake.
Obsessed with dance and influenced by an over-controlling mother, Nina is primed for obtaining the headlining position. The lead role in Swan Lake necessitates a performer capable of elegantly dancing the part of the white swan and sensually dancing the part of the black swan. In Nina’s case, her precise moves and shy demeanor represent the white swan well. Yet her timidity poorly translates to dancing the part of the black swan.
Furthermore, a new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis) perfectly assumes the dark and sensual character of the black swan. This competition for the prima ballerina role forces Nina to channel a dark and wild character contrary to her personality as she tries to perfect her skills; a character that threatens to consume her. As the movie unfolds, Nina Sayers spirals into darker corners of her psyche believing that everyone is her enemy scheming to ruin her.
Black Swan is brilliantly written, acted, and directed. While slightly and, more than likely, intentionally annoying, the timidity of Natalie Portman’s character is believable and renders the psychological aspects of the movie a reality. The film pushed me to the edge of my seat through impressive visuals, intense dialogue, and suspenseful scenes.
Impressively, Aronofsky craftily weaves humor into the story allowing the viewer to never fully be consumed in the darker themes of the narrative. These brief moments of levity supply the viewer with a counterbalance to some grisly images and suspenseful scenes almost fitting for horror genres.
Work to Live or Live to Work?
Through vividly surreal scenes, we watch as Nina transforms under stress and overwork. On one hand, her quest for perfection in her trade produces a better ballerina. Yet on the other hand, her obsessive plying of her trade unfolds unintended consequences. Black Swan ultimately teaches us that intense focus on work deteriorates the life around us and in us.
When we bring work home and make ourselves “on-call” at all hours of the day, our body cannot shut down and rest. Such continued stressful practices result in physical, emotional, and spiritual harm. We all need to manage our work/life balance for the sake of ourselves, our family, our friends, and our co-workers. The film, however, carries these themes a step further. Stress can literally destroy a life. Is a job worth perfection if it diminishes your personhood and that of those who love you?
Not Happily Ever After
Black Swan is not a happily-ever-after story; it depicts the broken qualities of humanity and portrays emotions reserved for the deepest depths of the soul. As Christians, we know that God always offers hope in every scenario. Although Black Swan most vividly highlights the impact of the fall, we know that God will ultimately redeem us from the consequences of stress and our destructive impulses for perfection this side of the New Creation.
Nevertheless, be forewarned that Aronofsky’s film does not tell a story in the redemptive mold. With excellent acting and direction, however, Black Swan deserves every ounce of critical acclaim it is receiving. I wholeheartedly recommend this movie.
Donovan Richards earned an M.A. in Business and Applied Theology from SPU and works as a consulting analyst for See Seven. You can read more reviews on Donovan's blog.