BLACK SWAN – Blu-ray review

Because there are so many ballet-minded girls in the world, it’s a shame “Black Swan” is such a dark, R-rated film that they can’t watch it until they’re old enough to date–which, for most dads, means never. Then again, it’s the darkness that sets this movie apart from others. That, and “dreadful excess,” according to Christopher Long, who also wrote in his theatrical review that he thought it was high camp. Chris is among the 12 percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics who think the film is “rotten”; I’m one of the 88 percent who thinks it’s “fresh.” Call us the Black and White Swans of DVD Town. Chris is probably more cynical than I am, and I’m a bit sunnier–though I’m pretty sure neither of us is going to go out and get hammered and have a same-sex encounter any time soon, or mutilate ourselves in order to be top Swan at DVD Town.

But it’s an interesting point Chris raises about the camp factor. Though the film was billed as a “psychological thriller,” you can’t help but wonder if there’s a little deliberate tongue-in-cheek action when, in one scene, a plucky ballerina plucks a black feather out of her skin, as if she had been hanging out with Jeff Goldblum on the set of “The Fly” and got stuck in the matter re-arranger with a bird. You also have to wonder, when you get into the territory of psychological thrillers, if camp is a natural by-product of excess, and if excess is the only way to convey a disturbed psyche. I say this because Chris’s comments echo what Horace Greeley wrote about Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” way back in 1843, with Greeley calling that tale of a murdered man’s heart that keeps on beating in the murderer’s brain “a strong and skilful, but to our minds overstrained and repulsive analysis of the feelings and promptings of an insane homicide.”

I think excess and camp are just part of the territory for a psychological thriller, and while “Black Swan” isn’t the bookend to “The Wrestler” that Darren Aronofsky intended, it’s still an accomplished film. Certainly, it proved to be the role of a lifetime for Natalie Portman, who earned an Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Nina Sayers, a soloist at a New York ballet company who, like all the rest, would do anything she could to get the lead role in every production. And as it turns out, the door opens wide when the company’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), puts prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) out to pasture and lets it be known that for this production he’s looking for someone new, someone fresh. Cue the catfight–though in the world of ballet, it’s all so proper on the surface and only catty underneath.

Mila Kunis is teasingly effective as Lily, the newcomer who competes with Nina (Portman) for the lead role in “Swan Lake.” And when Nina is chosen and Lily wrangles the job of understudy, the free spirit makes it her mission to introduce the cloistered Nina to a fun time. Is she a saboteur or initiator? Either way, it’s when things start to get interesting. Almost every scene in “Black Swan” introduces tension based on different characters wanting different things, with their motives blurred as much as the line between Nina’s real and hallucinatory worlds. It’s part of the film’s texture.

“Black Swan” does a fine job of exploring not just the prima ballerina competition and the toll it takes on an individual, but also the psyche of a person who most probably has obsessive-compulsive disorder . . . and maybe more. Where did those marks come from? Is it a supernatural force, or just a supercritical one? In truth, it’s not that hard to figure out, but like a “Columbo” investigation the fun isn’t so much in the puzzle, but in the way it’s all put together.

Though there’s been controversy, recently, about the amount of dancing that Portman did for the film, other than the final performance of “Swan Lake” at film’s end, there’s not as much dancing as you might expect–and what’s here isn’t dazzling. The focus isn’t on the performance, but on the psychology of the characters. And given that focus, Portman shines. She shows amazing versatility in playing the dutiful daughter, the psychotic, the naïve White Swan, and the let-loose Black Swan, and her performance is one of the things most worth watching. But Barbara Hershey is also excellent as “Mommie Dearest,” and the hand-held camerawork gets a big assist.

Though only Portman won an Oscar, “Black Swan” received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography, and it’s one of the year’s most noteworthy films–campy or not.

“Black Swan” was transferred to a 50GB disc using AVC/MPEG-4 technology, and there were no problems with the transfer that I could see. This was a grainy film in the theaters, with a lot of hand-held camera shots, and so in 1080p there’s still that grain where it’s meant to be. Aronofsky opted for a mixture of cameras, ranging from Arriflex Ultra 16 lens cameras to Canon EOS with L-Series lenses. So there’s a method to his madness. Colors are never so saturated as to appear bright and cheery, and that’s all part of the design. So expect a little roughness around the edges, which is in keeping with the personal, intrusive, home-video feel that one suspects Aronofsky was going for. “Black Swan” is presented in 2.40:1 widescreen.

Anyone who’s studied Hitchcock knows that sound design is the crux of a psychological thriller, and this soundtrack doesn’t disappoint. The English DTS-HD MA 5.1 featured soundtrack feels more pervasive than it does dynamic, but that’s in keeping with the thriller tradition. Additional audio options are in Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. I wouldn’t call the featured audi a dynamic soundtrack by any means, but the distribution of sound across the channels is subtly effective, and this music- and dialogue-driven film comes to life not just during dance numbers, but during those Hitchcockian moments.

Blu-ray releases of late haven’t been packed with bonus features, and this disc is no exception. Apart from a making-of documentary, “Black Swan Metamorphosis” (50 min.), all the other bonus features are under six minutes. There’s a trailer, a throwaway feature titled “Ballet” that runs under three minutes, a nice segment on production design (but under 4 minutes), brief profiles of Aronofsky and Portman, three clips of the two of them talking about her part, and five Fox Movie Channel promos. Other than these, the only other bonus features are sneak-peak trailers and BD-Live and mobile features.

Bottom Line:
Portman handles every stage in her character’s arc with intensity and grace, and while there isn’t as much prima dancing as one might expect, Aronofsky captures the world of prima ballerinas and the interior psyche of one dancer with believability and sympathy. Some parts are campy, some parts are creepy, but “Black Swan” lives up to its reputation. And Portman earned her Oscar.