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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Black Swan [Blu-ray]

 

(Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

 

 

 

    

 

    

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Production:

Theatrical: Protozoa & Phoenix Pictures

Blu-ray: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

 

Disc: Region FREE

Runtime: 1:48:07

Disc Size: 42,413,320,490 bytes

Feature Size: 28,305,788,928 bytes

Video Bitrate: 28.50 Mbps

Chapters: 28

Case: Amaray Blu-ray case w/ slipcover

Release date: March 29th, 2011

Video:

Aspect ratio: 2.40:1

Resolution: 1080P / 23.976 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video

 

 

Audio:

English DTS-HD MA 5.1 (48 kHz / 3622 kbps / 24-bit)
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1

 

Subtitles:

English, French & Spanish, and none

 

Extras:

• Metamorphosis: a making-of documentary (48:50)

• Behind the Curtain - Production, Costume & Ballet (10:30)

• 2 Cast Profiles (6:00)

• 2 Conversations with Darren Aronofsky & Natalie Portman (5:30)

• 5 Fox Movie Channel Presents (ca. 23 min)

• Theatrical Trailer - in HD

• BD Live

• Digital Copy Disc

 

Description: Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, handily one of the two or three best films of 2010, responds to the adage: "You can't have your cake and eat it too."

Comparisons to the Powell/Pressburger 1948 classic ballet film,
The Red Shoes, are inevitable, so right after I saw the film when it came out in the theatre last year I scribbled some preliminary fragments of thought before they escaped me altogether:

In The Red Shoes, this conflict is represented only in the ballet itself. Beyond that, the "Red Shoes Ballet" is merely a metaphor for a struggle which is, in my opinion, more a projection of Lermontov's psyche than Vicky's. In effect, it is he, not the dance, that catches up with Vicky in the closing seconds as she runs out of the theatre. The case for the struggle being centered in the call of the dance is obvious, but at the moment, and in the context of the 1948 film, I am inclined to think otherwise. Or, perhaps, it is Black Swan that has persuaded me of this idea.

 

 

Lermontov and Thomas (Nina’s impresario) take opposite positions on the question of integration: "A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never." Perhaps the word "comforts" means more to Lermontov than it does to Vicky. She merely desires Love and expects it to be part of what it means to be a woman. Whereas Thomas feels that Nina cannot dramatize the part of the Black Swan without having experienced the joys and pains of love. As he points out to her, she does the White Swan, i.e. Innocence, perfectly. But her dancing of the Black Swan lacks any spark of abandon, of sex.

In Black Swan the role of Lermontov is played by Nina's mother, who insists that her daughter remain a child and therefore an unintegrated, repressed and conflicted adult. Like Lermontov, she has hopes that Nina will become a great dancer, but unlike him, she neither expects it nor demands it. I think she may actually know, at least at some level, that Nina cannot be both a great dancer and remain a child, to wit: when her mother became pregnant with Nina she gave up a potential, if unlikely, career as a dancer. So as long as she can keep her daughter from sex, she entertains the fancy that Nina could have a career.

Poor Nina doesn't have a chance if she shares her mother’s recipe for success. Her mother takes whatever side is handy as long as it doesn’t involve boys. She seems sincerely happy for Nina when she lands the role of her dreams (quite literally) but at another point, she suggests that dancing in the quartet of the "Danse des petits cygnes" is not such a bad thing. But Nina has the bug now, and she must find a way to rationalize her mother’s commandments with the instructions of her director.

 

 

The Film: 9
It is not surprising that many who see this film take it to be “about” ballet and what that art form requires of someone to become a star ballerina. It’s an understanding of the screenplay that works, if imprecisely and incoherently, as if David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is about Hollywood and what an aspiring actress has to go through to land a part in a film.

In retrospect a hint at what else may be at play is revealed in the final credits, as we see that each actor plays two characters. But like any good story no time is wasted setting things up at the outset. In Nina’s dream she sees herself in the role of the white swan queen. At first alone, she is soon under the spell of the sorcerer Rothbart, dressed in black feathers. She tries to flee, but in vain. Rothbart has stolen her soul. Nina misinterprets the meaning of her dream, but this is perhaps because she is too close to Rothbart in her waking life, or soon will be.

Or perhaps we might find an answer in the way Matthew Libatique lights his film to compress the dynamic range or that he often photographs Nina a few paces from behind her as she walks through the corridors of her mind, as if she is being followed, which she is, is she not? Is it responsible in some way for that rash that appears on her shoulder? And what about that she wears white while Nina’s mother, Erica, and Lily, the company's new dancer and potential challenge to Nina, wear black. All the more interesting in that Erica and Lily are in the most direct competition for Nina’s loyalty. Lily is Nina’s guide across the river into the Hades where live sex, drugs and rock n roll, while Nina’s mother demands deference as if Nina is still a young child. Not least, we certainly can’t help but notice how much of Aronofsky’s film is shot in reflections, often split or broken, as she is.

 

 

Compressed, broken, split, repressed - Nina moves through this hour and forty-five minutes like Vicky in that moment in the Red Shoes ballet when she has fled from the carnival and wanders in a mist of slowed motion and empty streets only to find herself alone with fragments of her projected loneliness and despair. How different Aronofsky’s approach to a similar subject than was Ron Howard’s for A Beautiful Mind where that director seemed more interested in tricking his audience than engaging us in the process of a mental breakdown.

Whatever might have been the filmmakers’ intention, I rather enjoy seeing Aronofsky’s movie as a nightmare, one that begins in what appears to the protagonist as a harmless, if portentous dream and ends in a delirious, eroticized metamorphosis. In this view, everything, and I do mean everything, are projections of Nina’s psyche - of her desires, repressions, conflicts, urges. She sees these projections - uh, one moment please - I am suddenly aware of Di Caprio’s explanation of how the dreamer affects the dream in Inception - Indeed, Black Swan could easily be seen as a shared dream. We share this dream with the characters in the play. Like Thomas, Lily and Erica, we try to invade Nina’s dream with our own projections. We want to steer her this way or that and make it all come out in some rational way, even if it is to explain Nina as psychotic. (Not my favorite view, by the way)

All this psychologizing aside, there is a plot of sorts. Nina (Natalie Portman) is offered the complex and demanding dual role of the Black and White Swans in Thomas Leroy’s new production of “Swan Lake.” While Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is more confident about Nina’s technique than she is, he is far less certain that she will be able to tap into the necessary darkness and let herself go (which he seems to equate with sex) to play the Black Swan. It is easy to see Thomas as obsessed with conquest and sex - indeed, this is the view of his previous “little princess,” Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), who is about to be forcibly retired from both the stage and his bed. But like most men in power, he is probably only a narcissist who can’t tell the difference.

But no less obsessed with sex is Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey). In her way, Erica is as warped as Piper Laurie in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. She has done everything she could to keep her daughter safe from the seductions of sex - something she herself was unable to do and which resulted in the burden of a child (“thanks, mom”) and loss of a career as a dancer. Erica rationalizes that she protects her daughter from the big bad world only for the sake of her career. Like Lermontov, Erica believes she and Nina can’t have Love and become a great dancer. It doesn’t take a Freud to see that Nina’s mother resents her daughter, her youth and beauty, her talent, and the possibility she could indeed have both - or either one, for that matter.

As I said, poor Nina doesn’t have a chance. Her journey into paranoia and delusion is inevitable, even if she gets to wear her shoes and eat them at the same time.

 


 

Image: 8/8  NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were ripped directly from the Blu-ray disc.
Like Nina herself, the image seems on the verge of breaking down before our eyes, especially if you look at it closely on a computer display. The focus is sharp enough, but every effort is made to keep the characters just a bit shadowy and murky until the final dazzling tableau. It’s a movie that looks best properly projected, where there is sufficient space and distance for the eye to fill in the molecular structure, so to speak.

This is one of those movies where a score for image quality can be misleading. While far from ingratiating, I do believe what we see on Fox’s new
Blu-ray corresponds to the filmmakers’ intentions. Unlike just about every other major studio’s offerings these days, Black Swan was shot, not on 35 mm film, but mostly with a 16 mm camera with the support of the Canon 5D Mk II full frame digital camera (I have one of those for the very reason that it is capable of 1080p video). The persistent grain apparent throughout the movie, however, is not so much the result of shooting in these media (cf: my review of Pride and Prejudice) but the use of flared and low light, plus, I suspect, a judicious amount of post-processing. A bit of noise is inevitable, but it is hard to tell it from the overall look of the film.

For these reasons, the resultant image may not win any converts to high definition but it is presented without blemishes, transfer issue or enhancements - certainly without noise reduction. By the way, for all its darkness, there is hardly any true black except in the opening dream. Interesting: black at the beginning, ending in a fade to white.

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 8/9
A good deal of the musical score for Black Swan is derived from Tchaikovsky’s immortal ballet, “Swan Lake,” the first of his three masterpieces in the genre (the others being nothing less than “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker.”) In Nina’s dream that opens the film, we hear his music in its full orchestration, and it sounds glorious and rich, yet never overpowers the action “on stage.” And so it is throughout the movie, whether the music is played by a rehearsal ensemble featuring Tim Fain’s solo violin work (whose location on stage is correctly positioned and balanced as POV changes), or a boombox recording of the ballet music, a performance orchestra, Clint Mansell’s subtle cues from the master or his own re-imagining of a morsel of rehearsal music or music box. Black Swan is alive with music, always in wonderful balance with dialogue and effects.

Along with the usual ambient sounds, the movie is alive with subtle and alarming audio cues from rustling feathers to the whoosh of a passing subway train to point Nina’s attention to some shadow that passes behind her or off in some corner. The sound of creaking shoes on the dance floor and the preparation of those shoes for the days work are among the film’s many delights. Bass is relegated almost entirely to the one club scene where the music is muffled, like Nina’s consciousness.

As for the dialogue, Black Swan is remarkable for its naturalistic approach to sound recording. I never had the feeling that any of the dialogue was looped. In fact, in the scene where Thomas first address the company as they warm up, we can make out that his voice changes in quality as he moves about the floor, facing this way and that, just as it would if we were standing at the position of the camera.  

 

 

Extras: 7
In place of an audio commentary, which would have been nice I think, Fox offers two behind-the-scenes pieces. The first, titled “Metamorphosis,” is spotlights filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, Natalie and their crew, working under extraordinary pressure of time, from the inception of the dual roles of Black and White Swans, through various aspects of production to her eventUAL her transformation into the black swan. It’s an exceedingly detailed informative piece, sometimes direct, sometimes indirect about the process. In addition Darren and Natalie we get to hear from DP Matthew Libatique who talks about lighting and the look of the film he wanted. Also heard from at some length are Editor Andy Weisblum, Writer Mark Heyman, Production Designer (I especially appreciated her comments on blocking in relation to how the actor naturally moved through her sets), Prosthetic FX Artist Mike Marino and Visual FX Supervisor Dan Schrecker. You want to know how they grew all those feathers, Dan’s your man.

The second group of behind-the-scenes segments concern the ballet, costume and production design. These are all too brief to do their subjects justice, and Fox turns the knife by failing to group them with a Play All. Fox makes the same mistake regarding the remaining three features: a profile each for Natalie and Darren (six minutes between them); two post-production “conversations” between Natalie and her director about preparing for the role and her dancing (another six minutes - very EPK); most egregious is the failure to group the five Fox Movie Channel presentations (more EPK) focusing on the director and the four principal actors (totaling 22 minutes, and well worth ignoring.) The Fox Movie Channel pieces are all done in standard def 1.33:1. All the other features are presented in 1080p.

 

 

Bottom line: 9
Excepting the mostly routine bonus features and the absence of a commentary (excepting again the very good fifty-minute documentary), Black Swan is a must-see, must-heard, and must-felt movie. And Fox has done all those involved proud. Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a manifestation of an internal conflict between irreconcilable forces. The screenplay maintains the tension in this conflict from the first to the last frame. This is its gift and its challenge. It may be that trying to make “sense” of the story is like finding your way out of Escher’s Ascending/Descending Stairway. My advice: Let yourself go. Pick yourself up. Embrace the Dark Side. And start all over again.

Leonard Norwitz
March 31st, 2011

 

 

    

 

    

 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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