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Black Swan – Review

Black Swan – Review

Feb 23, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2010

For my money, the most disturbing horror sub-genre has always been body horror.  Many of the most indelible images from my thirty-plus years of consuming horror literature and film come from works of body horror.  Belial raping Duane’s love interest in Basket Case, Jeff Goldblum as the disintegrating Seth Brundle in Cronenberg’s The Fly, the “prick” test in Carpenter’s The Thing, Billy Halleck wasting away in King’s Thinner—all of these and more are perma-burned into my brain, and I haven’t even got around to watching The Human Centipede.

Black Swan, the first horror film nominated for a major Academy Award since Silence of the Lambs in 1992 (or Jaws in 1976 if you are one of “those” people) takes the abuse that ballet dancers put themselves through on a daily basis, adds to it a Poe-like protagonist whose mind is degrading alongside her body, and finishes it off with a dash of Grand Guignol moments that would make Argento proud.  It is a heady piece of work.

The film is the story of Nina Sayers, a ballerina finally getting her shot to dance the lead role in a New York ballet production of Swan Lake.  The pressures of the job and extra stress heaped upon her by an overbearing mother and a conniving dance troupe member begin to chip away at what appears to be her already tenuous grip on reality.

She starts imagining things, or are they actually happening—at first there is some question.  Lily, as the whore to Nina’s Madonna, provides the film with a worth while antagonist who may, or may not, be trying to drive Nina crazy.

As her psychosis builds, we are exposed to many horror tropes and, surprisingly, a handful of attempts at “gotcha” kind of scares.  There are some great moments throughout and I’m loathe to spoil them here, but I will say that her eventual transition into the titular black swan is simply beautiful.  There, as throughout, the make-up, physical and digital effects are top notch, as we have come to expect in Aronofsky’s films.

Effects aside, the core of the horror in Black Swan is anchored in realism.  We witness the tremendous stress and injury that goes with the day to day activity of ballet.  It is a good thing the film is rated R.  If too many young dancers got a peak at the film, it would be hard to cast all those Nutcracker mice for the coming holidays.

For some reason, the image that affected me most was a simple one late in the film.  Our protagonist, after a hard day of practice, takes off one of her pointe shoes and reveals a bruised foot and toes scrunched together like a clenched fist.  She takes off the second shoe and we get a full-on horror shot of that foot with all the toes fused into a single mass.  I’m not sure the more realistic reveal isn’t the more horrifying of the two.

There will be some argument among horror fans and critics as to whether Black Swan is really a horror film.  I’ll let them hash that out for themselves.  For me, it is a nearly perfect example of body horror, and it is the best horror film I’ve seen since Let the Right One In.

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