AFI Movie Club: BLACK SWAN – American Film Institute

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AFI Movie Club: BLACK SWAN

BLACK SWAN, directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie Portman in an Academy Award®-winning role, is set against the competitive world of high-stakes ballet. Shot with a serene and surreal beauty by AFI Conservatory alum Matthew Libatique (AFI Class of 1992), who was also nominated for an Oscar® for his work, the film is suffused with psychological and bodily horror as it delves into what an artist is willing to endure for their craft.

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Movie Trivia about TODAY’S FILM

DID YOU KNOW? The film began as a screenplay by Andres Heinz called “The Understudy” and was set against the backdrop of New York theater. Director Darren Aronofsky originally used this as a working title for his screenplay but transposed it to the world of ballet after becoming intrigued by his sister’s experience as a ballet student.

DID YOU KNOW? In 2001, Darren Aronofsky discussed the idea behind BLACK SWAN with Natalie Portman, envisioning it as a film loosely based on “The Double: A Petersburg Poem” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Portman then confided that she had wanted to make a film about ballet for many years.

DID YOU KNOW? To prepare for the role of Nina in BLACK SWAN, Natalie Portman trained daily for months with Mary Helen Bowers of the New York City Ballet and other dancers. In addition to ballet, her training included swimming, weights and cross training. Mila Kunis, who portrayed Lily, had never taken ballet lessons and also rigorously trained.

DID YOU KNOW?According to production notes, Darren Aronofsky recruited Benjamin Millepied, a dancer with the New York City ballet, to choreograph and portray the part of David/The Prince in BLACK SWAN. Millepied would meet his future-wife, Natalie Portman, on set.

DID YOU KNOW? Barbara Hershey, who portrayed Erica Sayers, Nina’s mother, was cast about a week before production began. Darren Aronofsky asked her to write two letters to Nina as Erica, which he gave to Natalie Portman at key times during filming.

DID YOU KNOW? Ballet sequences in BLACK SWAN were shot at State University of New York at Purchase College where famed director and choreographer Bob Fosse shot portions of ALL THAT JAZZ.

DID YOU KNOW? Cinematographer – and AFI Conservatory alum – Matthew Libatique (AFI Class of 1992) shot Nina’s reflections on darker surfaces to suggest her darker alter ego. Meanwhile, art director Thérèse DePrez and costume designer Amy Westcott, worked with mostly black, gray and pink colors. At the beginning of the film, Nina is dressed in gray and pink, but as her personality transforms, her clothing becomes darker.

DID YOU KNOW? Aronofsky stated that he intended BLACK SWAN to be a companion piece to his 2008 film THE WRESTLER. He explained that the two films share the themes of “bodily extremes” and both present protagonists as lonely, battered “souls in turmoil.”

DID YOU KNOW? French actor Vincent Cassel compared his character Thomas Leroy to ballet choreographer George Balanchine, who co-founded the New York City Ballet. The actor said Balanchine was “a control freak, a true artist using sexuality to direct his dancers.”

DID YOU KNOW? BLACK SWAN was nominated for Academy Awards® for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. Natalie Portman won the Oscar® for Best Actress. Clint Mansell’s score, which incorporated themes from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, was ruled ineligible for Oscar® consideration because it contained large portions of pre-composed music.

Learn more at the AFI Catalog.

 

The movie doesn’t end at the credits: Family-friendly Discussion Questions

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-How is the elegance and grace of ballet contrasted with the rigorous nature of the art form itself that involves blood, sweat and tears? How does Darren Aronofsky go about depicting this dichotomy?

-How is BLACK SWAN an unconventional horror film? What are some examples of bodily horror, inherent in the female body, that the film incorporates throughout?

-Do you believe that to achieve artistic excellence a certain amount of suffering is necessary?

-What do you think of the relationship between Nina Sayers and her mother Erica? How is Nina infantilized at home in many ways? How is their relationship co-dependent?

-What do you think of the Svengali choreographer, Thomas, played by Vincent Cassel? How does he push Nina to a breaking point? Why does he try to make her more sexually liberated? Is this helpful in terms of expanding her abilities as an artist or do you see it as exploitative?

-How does the film use the idea of “the double” to full effect? How is Lily Nina’s double?

-How does cinematographer Matthew Libatique give a disorienting effect with his use of mirrors throughout the movie?

-How is the character of Beth, played by Winona Ryder, portrayed? How is she an inspiring role model and how is she a cautionary tale for Nina?

-The film’s ending is left intentionally ambiguous. How do you interpret it? How would you define “perfection” and what are the extremes that Nina is willing to put herself through to achieve it? Do you find this impulse to be masochistic or transcendent in the world of ballet?

-How would you rate BLACK SWAN?

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AFI has created a global, virtual gathering of those who love the movies. Each day’s film is accompanied by fun facts, family-friendly discussion points and material from the AFI Archive to enrich your viewing experience.

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