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Cinema in Focus: ‘Black Swan’ Takes a Turn to the Dark Side

The internal story of a troubled ballerina is powerfully told in this disturbing tale

3 Stars — Disturbing

Novels are known for their ability to portray the inner thoughts and struggles of their characters better than cinema. But in Darren Aronofsky’s film of the Black Swan, we have a masterpiece of psychological story-telling. Taking us inside the world of professional ballet, he also takes us inside the mind of the driven ballerina, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman).

This film deserves its R rating as we experience the sexual fantasies and psychotic episodes of this young woman. We soon recognize that her pain is a perfect storm of external and internal pressure.

The daughter of an aspiring ballerina who had to surrender her career when she became pregnant with Nina, we realize that this mother is unstable. Erica (Barbara Hershey) not only vicariously experiences Nina’s dancing successes and failures, but she micromanages her life — from diets to friends.

When this home life is combined with the temperamental and opportunistic direction of Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) as head of the ballet company, the stage is set.

But to add another layer to this tension, Aronofsky and writers Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz add the competitive presence of Lily (Mila Kunis). The opposite to Nina’s frigid perfectionism, Lily is a free spirit from San Francisco who dances the same way she lives — with reckless abandon. When Lily introduces drugs into Nina’s fragile negotiation, her actions prove to be diabolically effective.

Though we won’t spoil how all of this weaves together into the perfect portrayal of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, it goes without saying that mental stability is a fascinating subject. With most people experiencing a momentary fantasy though not psychotic breaks, many wonder what it would be like if we lost touch with reality. What kind of visions would we create and with what results? What inner desires and fears would reveal themselves to us, and how would we protect ourselves from both? What blackness resides within us that is seeking expression?

Answering these questions and raising many others, Black Swan is a study in fragility and the power perfectionism can have over a person, especially in an art form where perfection can arguably be achieved. As such, this film is a revealing look into the psyche — though a disturbing one.


» 1. A psychotic experience seems completely real to the person having it. Have you ever had an experience that you discovered later was not real? Have you had a dream that seemed so real it was hard to convince yourself it was not?

» 2. The creation of a disturbed person is often the result of the family in which that person developed. How do you see Nina and her mother’s relationship as a contributing cause?

» 3. Do you believe Nina’s break would not have come if she had not been drugged? Do you believe Lily’s drugging of Nina was malicious competition or reckless friendship?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit

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