Tag Archives: Natalie Portman

Lily Edwardes-Hill on Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)



Video Essay:

Creator’s Statement:

How Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) uses mother-daughter relationships to establish itself as a ‘coming of age’ film


Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) is a psychological horror, surrounding the story of a ballerina named Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) as she goes on her journey to become the Swan Queen, a combination of both the white and black swan, in the New York City Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. We watch as Nina navigates her way through her desire for the role, aspiring for perfection. Her situation is further complicated by the overbearing relationship with her ex-ballerina mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) and Thomas Leroy, her manipulative ballet director/teacher (Vincent Cassel). As the narrative progresses Aronofsky introduces more horror elements, as we watch, essentially, Nina’s descent into madness. Rivalry blossoms between Nina and her fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) and this fuels Nina’s obsession with the role of the Swan Queen. We bear witness to Nina’s growth from her sheltered, almost child-like persona (the white swan) to an evil, seductive force (the black swan).


With the help of a previously unproduced screenplay centred around the haunting feeling of an understudy, akin to the legend around doppelgängers, Aronofsky brought his prior love for Swan Lake to the film creating the perfect twisted coming-of-age. The movie received five nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress, which Portman won. Her performance plays a major role in the film’s success as she portrays a character who ultimately metamorphosises on screen. Her ability to play both versions of Nina’s psyche is paramount to the audience’s experience with the film, allowing for us to almost feel as though we are viewing more than one actress, and ultimately achieving the goal of portraying the takeover of the black swan.


Aronofsky cleverly uses the already known difficulty and brutality of ballet and its effects on the body to introduce body horror to the film in small increments, just enough for an eerie and nightmare-like atmosphere to develop while also having the plot based in some sort of reality. This warping of reality, again, allows us to enter the confused state of Nina Sayers and experience her reality alongside her, rather than being an omniscient audience. A scene in which Nina begins to pick at a loose piece of skin on her finger in the toilet of her announcement party, shows an example of the subtle body horror elements Aronofsky uses, as Nina pulls the string of skin all the way up her finger. To counter the subtlety of this scene, a later scene shows Nina in her bedroom as her legs and arms ‘break’ as she starts ‘becoming’ the Swan Queen, an example of Aronofsky using a much more extreme type of body horror as we near the films climax. This crescendo of physical torment wonderfully reflects Nina’s mental state at each point of the film.


The character of Erica Sayers is a perfect example of an overcontrolling mother who, due to the disappointment in their own life, attempt to vicariously live through their children. The basis of this can be seen in plenty of coming-of-age films, it being a very common trope, the mother-daughter relationship being something that film makers love to explore. What makes Black Swan so special is its way of twisting this type of coming-of-age that we are all familiar with and making it dark and gritty, subverting the presentation of this common relationship while also maintaining the basis of what we expect. Throughout the film it is not only important that we witness Nina’s transformational journey, but it is also arguably just as important to pay close attention to the changes in Erica. At the very beginning of the film, we are introduced to the relationship between Nina and Erica and up until Nina getting the role of Swan Queen. I would argue we view this relationship slightly differently than what we may perhaps view it as later, the act of her daughter acquiring the role being almost a catalyst for what’s to come, in reference to their relationship. Although overbearing, the way Erica acts around Nina in the beginning can still be viewed from a place of love and care, she wants her daughter to achieve great things as a ballerina, do things she did not get a chance herself to do in her youthful years. Once Nina does achieve the role she has been pushed towards, the way Erica acts starts to change. Part of Nina’s own journey after she claims the role of Swan Queen is to move away from her mother and become a more independent woman who acts more her own age, this desire to push away being an act seen in most mother-daughter relationships depicted in coming-of-age films.  This is something Erica did not anticipate or envisage in her ideal world where Nina gets to excel in her career whilst also remaining her ‘little girl’. We see plenty of examples of this, including an important scene where Nina defiantly says “NO” for the first time when asked by her mother to remove her clothes in order for her to check for self-inflicted scratches on her back. This scene also happens amongst a conversation about Erica’s past as a ballerina and perhaps the hidden resentment she holds for getting pregnant with Nina, fuelling this inner battle within the mother to both push her daughter further than she could achieve herself while also attempting to hold her back due to jealousy and regret. This sudden shift in their relationship means Erica’s actions and reactions become more from a place of panic and toxicity, and less so love for her daughter. A scene which can be almost pinpointed as a place of this sudden change is the two’s first scene together after Nina’s is told of her role in the production. When Nina arrives home, she is greeted by her mother and a cake to celebrate her new role, “It’s our favourite”, another instance where perhaps we are being shown Erica almost acting as if her and her daughter are a combined person. The non-diegetic sound of a metallic ding directly indicates the complete tonal switch in Erica’s mood, as Nina repeatedly refuses the cake, her mother’s face drops, correlating with the introduction of eerie sound. Erica immediately resorts to absolutes, “Fine, fine. Then it’s garbage.”, an extremely common defence tactic shown throughout the history of mother-daughter relationships, instead of reason and logic we witness panic and an attempt to disengage, the universal “I guess I’m just a bad mother then”. As soon as Nina hurriedly apologises, Erica switches back, this eerie atmosphere however still carrying through as we watch Nina lick icing off of her mother’s finger, clearly uncomfortable. It must also be mentioned that the small bathroom scene before this is the first scene we see where Nina uses space to represent her need for privacy, using the basket to block the door, something that escalates throughout the film, the climax being most definitely the sex scene between Portman and Kunis.


Nina’s desire for perfection is partly reinforced by her mother, “the dimensions of perfectionism include parental expectations[1], and this is yet another way in which the film stresses the tensions between mother and daughter. The final look they share as Nina is at the top of the podium says plenty, both a rebellious goodbye but also a sense of mourning coming from Nina as she ultimately ends her life, be that literally or metaphorically. Ultimately, Black Swan is a perfect combination of reality/fantasy, tension, and an insight into the emotional turmoil of a young woman, coming together successfully to create a final scene that leaves us with goosebumps and questions.


— Lily Edwardes-Hill





[1] Anshel, M. H., Kim, J. K. and Henry, R. 2009. Reconceptualizing indicants of sport perfectionism as a function of gender. Journal of Sport Behavior, 32(4): 395–418.

The Practice of Film Criticism Podcast 2022: Lily Edwardes-Hill and Luke Brown on Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Lily Edwardes-Hill and Luke Brown return to the podcast, this time to discuss Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010).  There are three foci of discussion: body horror, the coming-of-age film and mother/daughter relationships. Lily and Luke explore how the film makes us question what truly happens in the narrative. We see the action through the perspective of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) but the whole film is about her descent into madness, making the viewer question the reliability of that narration. Black Swan brings up images just at the end of shots and then drops them to convey this idea of things being on the edge of vision or the unconscious. The film is structured as a change from the white swan to the black swan, a mournful and uncomfortable one in which the push and pull between Nina, her mother (Barbara Hershey) and her director (Vincent Cassell) play the central role though her adoration of Beth (Winona Ryder) and her competition with Lily (Mila Kunis) also figure prominently in developing themes of coming of age, independence and the price of artistic integrity and success. Lily and Luke discuss the use of mirrors and the way Aronofsky uses devices familiar to viewers of other films such as Requiem for a Dream (2000). In the end, Lily and Luke deem the film akin to a two-hour panic attack, and a success for conveying it so complexly and powerfully. A podcast that makes one want to see the film again.


The podcast may be listened to here:

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 366 – Thor: Love and Thunder

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

We’re into the land of diminishing returns with Marvel, it seems, with the novelty of a shared cinematic universe having worn off and the big storyline everything was building to for ten years now over. Of course, another big event is sure to be on its way in another decade, but will we care by then?

Not if Thor: Love and Thunder is anything to go by. Between the thinning appeal of Taika Waititi’s self-satisfied comedy and the uninvolving and lazy plot, characters, and imagery, it’s an unmemorable failure of Marvel’s action comedy formula. Admittedly, Christian Bale makes his Voldemort-esque villain, Gorr the God Butcher, more threatening than you might expect, given his simplicity and lack of screen time, and there’s some fairly charming comic business between Thor and his semi-sentient weaponry. Tough to recommend just for those, though.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Jackie (Pablo Larrain, Chile/France/ USA, 2016)


A complex story about story-telling, about the relationship between truth and legend, about the imaging of history, the shaping it through the construction of particular images to render them iconic, so memorable that history is not only read through them but actually reifies into those images themselves. In a way Jackie can be understood  as a continuation and development of some of the themes first explored in No, Larrain’s 2012 film about the development of an ad campaign to defeat Chilean Dictator Agusto Pinochet in a national referendum. Natalie Portman is extraordinary. I can’t think of any other actress who’s had so many demands made on her by one movie in the last year; on a surface level — in terms of what one likes — she carries the whole thing (though I also perked up at the first sounds of Richard Burton singing ‘Camelot’). Portman and her work are what emotionally engage. The achievements of the film itself — like with Larrain’s other work — Tony Manero and Post Mortem come to mind — are too intellectual, too distancing to be encompassed or warmed through a word such as ‘like’. One ends up cooly admiring, rather dispassionately, and perhaps as a result, the mind doesn’t linger over the ideas too long either. One knows it’s extraordinary but one wants to move on, quickly, to something warmer and more instantly gratifying…and yet the story and its telling won’t quite let you and pull you back to thought.


José Arroyo

Brief Flashes on Viewing and Reading in January


Jackie (Pablo Larrain, Chile/France/ USA, 2016)

A complex story about story-telling, about the relationship between truth and legend, about the imaging of history, the shaping it through the construction of particular images to render them iconic, so memorable that history is not only read through them but actually reifies into those images themselves. Natalie Portman is extraordinary. I can’t think of any other actress who’s had so many demands made on her by one movie in the last year; on a surface level — in terms of what one likes — she carries the whole thing (though I also perked up at the first sounds of Richard Burton singing ‘Camelot’). Portman and her work are what emotionally engage. The achievements of the film itself — like with Larrain’s other work — are too intellectual, too distancing to be encompassed or warmed through a word such as ‘like’. One ends up cooly admiring, rather dispassionately, and perhaps as a result, the mind doesn’t linger over the ideas too long either. One knows it’s extraordinary but one wants to move on, quickly, to something warmer and more instantly gratifying…and yet the story and its telling won’t quite let you and pull you back to thought.

Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonnergan, USA, 2016)

The moment when Michelle Williams appears with the baby carriage in Manchester by the Sea….it’s like the whole audience collectively opens up the tearducts, and they stay open to varying degrees –from trickle to full flow — until the end. I’ve not seen anything like this since Terms of Endearment, and Manchester by the Sea earns its tears more honestly.

Rebecca Meade in a wonderful piece on Lonnergan for the New Yorker gives us an insight on the infinite accumulation of detail that makes this such a great movie:

‘Affleck, another of Lonergan’s longtime friends and collaborators, says that he and Lonergan spent hours discussing how Lee Chandler’s character is revealed not just in his words but also by his unthinking actions. In one harrowing scene, Chandler is shown clutching a bag of groceries. “That was written into the script—that he is holding this bag. It was one of the few scenes where, when I read it, I thought, What is going on here?” Affleck told me. “I thought, Well, if I have to get upset, I can get myself to feeling upset. But why does he want me holding a bag? Then, when we came to do the scene, it made perfect sense. The character—he doesn’t scream and gnash his teeth and pull out his hair. He is just clamped down on himself. From that moment, he tightens up. So once I just held on to the bag I thought, This is how the rest of the moment ought to play out. He is just trying to hold on, and that ends up carrying over to so much more. He never lets himself have any sort of catharsis or release in any way.” It was, Affleck said, “an example where I learned to have faith in the writing, and in Kenny. It seemed like a little detail, but it made so many other things work.”

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2016)

At the end of La La Land the audience’s need to applaud was palpable but only a few people managed to overcome their shyness.It’s not perfect but it is romantic and sad with many sequences that make one feel happy at the rhythm and the movement and the colour, like musicals should. The things one loves in musicals are often ineffable (the way Ryan Gosling ends his dance steps for example). Personally, if I’d had any guts myself, I would have started applauding after the duet at the beginning when Ryan and Emma first dance together. It’s a lovely film. The expected backlash is ridiculous, and building. I find it obnoxious because a: the film was a risk to make, on a tight budget, and it’s success in no way assured b) it seems anti-populist and popular, echoing that old elitist self-delusion that anything that masses of people enjoy can’t possibly be any good c) there’s more than a hint of, I wouldn’t say misoginy but anti-feminine, anti-art, anti-pretty sentiment in that backlash, all which come across as macho whether it’s expressed by men or women.Jonathan Rosenbaum beautiful expresses the pull of the film by highlighting the sadness in it: ‘A fact about many of the greatest musicals (and greatest post-musicals, such as those of Jacques Demy that Damien Chazelle is so obviously emulating) that characteristically gets overlooked, which is how much the elation of song and dance is only half of a dialectic that also highlights failure, hopelessness, and defeat.’ This is very true of La La Land and is a necessary component to the utopian dimension expressed by the musical numbers. If there’s a better musical than La La Land since All that Jazz what is it?  Chicago? Mamma Mia? Burlesque? Rock of Ages? La La Land might not be perfect but it’s perfect for me.

A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona, USA/Spain, 2016)

Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Geraldine Chaplin, all in one film. the latter with one black dot painted right in the centre of heavily mascaraed lower lids. The film, A Monster Calls, is directed with great skill and sensitivity by J.A. Bayona –for a film dramatising a child dealing with his mother’s death of cancer, it’s incomparably restrained — and is almost as good as The Orphanage, the great Spanish horror film that made his international reputation.I like the way this is done almost as a gothic horror film/ fairy tale. My complaints would be in relation to the looks (it still has that metallic tinge I hate, though other aspects look beautiful or seem really imaginative); and also the accents: Sigourney’s English sounds a bit ridiculous. The rest I liked very much and the child is wonderful.We’re spoiled at the moment and A Monster Calls is yet another of the great crop of recent films. Will the 2016 vintage challenge 1939?

Sing Street (John Carney, Ireland/UK/ USA, 2016)

The other great musical of the season is Sing Street; on Netflix at the moment and totally charming.

Grey Gardens at the LGBT Centre in Central Birmingham:

For a while last week we were afraid no one would turn up for the Grey Gardens (Ellen Hovde,/Albert Maysles/ David Maysles/Muffie Meyer, USA, 1975) event at the LGBT centre. But eventually 12-15 braved the weather and slowly trudged in. I did not know the film had become so canonical in the annals of American camp until I started talking to friends about showing and then all instances came out (comedic sketches, RuPaul drag race take-offs etc). Interestingly, the audience for this screening were mostly women, the mother-daughter aspect of the film clearly trumping the camp dimension gay boys find so entertaining, emotional engagement clearly winning over ironic distancing.

Thoughts arising from reading Felice Picano’s many, many –too many – memoirs:

I think it’s just a question of time before this is written about at least as much as Bloomsbury: the artistic circles in which Pauline Kael, James Broughton (father of Kael’s daughter and lover of Harry Hay, founder of Mattachine Society, Radical Faerie and a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence), Robert Duncan (involved with Kael and Robert DeNiro Sr.), Virginia Admiral (artist, mother to DeNiro Jr and partner of critic Manny Farber), Robert Horn (involved with Kael again but also Gian Carlo Menotti etc), and many many more key figures in American Arts of the 20th century all intersected sexually and artistically. A great PhD project for someone. You’re welcome.

José Arroyo

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, USA, 2013)


Thor: The Dark World is much better than Thor. Visually, it’s a fan-boy’s delight, with the comic-book world a dream cinematic rendering. The filmmakers have succeeded in creating a believable world that is nonetheless not too far removed from the three-strip colour comic of adolescent memory. The CGI works beautifully for this type of superhero film as, even when its detectable, it only reinforces the ‘illustrated’ dimension of the comic-book world that is being created for us.

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The look of the film, surely the most beautiful and imaginative production design of the year, exceeds expectations. Thor’s world is a wonderful intersection of Gothic Viking imagery, a knowable and iconic London, and that which its sci-fi/ fantasy setting makes permissible (super-powers, the aligning of dimensions, magic). One comes out of the film with an appreciation of the brilliance of its imagery: Odin’s throne-room, Frigga’s funeral, Loki’s prison, each is recognisably what one expects, yet better composed and executed than one dared imagine.

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There are also fantastic set-pieces that do make one gawp: the initial battle sequence, Malekith’s entrance into Asgard, the aerial fight as Thor and Jane Foster try to escape it, the magnificent way Thor calls for his hammer in the final fight. I found all of this viscerally exciting and visually thrilling. But if the whole look of the film is spectacular, the actors who people that world and bring these characters to life are also deserving of praise.

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Chris Hemsworth is clearly born to that part; with his hair, his colouring and his musculature, it’s hard to think of anyone else in the role. But then there’s also Tom Hiddlestone with his wonderfully theatrical performance of Loki, and the way Anthony Hopkins as Odin creates effects just by the way he enunciates the final consonants in key words; and Christopher Eccleston unrecognizable but also vocally superb as Malekeith, and the way Idris Elba’s face is used almost sculpturally to create a  superb visually iconic myth of Heimdall — note how the yellow of his eyes is co-ordinated with his armour and helmet makes for very memorable close-ups — but one which also creates the illusion of three-dimensions. Aside from these, there’s also Kat Dennings and Chris O’Dowd for comic relief (which I found tired but which I attribute to my age as the younger audience seemed to lap it up) and Natalie Portman, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgaard. It’s an extraordinary all-star cast.

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The particulars of the story are sometimes hard to follow and I’m not sure if the story is as tightly plotted as one would have wished. However, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t much matter here. There other pleasures that more than compensated: the self-referential cameo by Chris Evans as Captain America, the jokey way the portals between dimensions is introduced, the appearance of Chris O’Dowd and other minor aspects of the film are delightful. But the main thing is how Thor: The Dark World looks true to the original yet newly striking, how the film moves beautifully and how it plays so well; and with some exciting action and a few laughs thrown in for good measure. Whiners may quibble; but it’s one to see again, preferably on IMAX.

José Arroyo