"Take it from the vision."
--Nina, to the pianist.
Black Swan tells the story of a repressed ballet dancer whose technical brilliance allows her to dance the White Swan in Swan Lake, but not the Black Swan. She needs to be able to do both to shine as lead dancer. As she engages the part, she begins to release a very dark side, madness she has kept in check. Our obsessed dancer's efforts and desires create a dangerous synergy with her own unstable brain, with terrifying consequences.
This could almost be a female Fight Club, but the script has its own obsessions-- and I immediately assumed (correctly) that men had written it. Make of that what you will. It could be a companion piece to the director's earlier The Wrestler, another clever though exploitative look at an unbalanced performer. More accurately, it is the dance world's Naked Lunch. The effort required to achieve greatness in art can exact a frightening price.
Black Swan has a plot exploitative and lurid, which comes to an entirely predictable conclusion. Its treatment of female characters often seems less than enlightened. These same criticisms, however, could be made of ballet or opera. Swan Lake, certainly, stripped of the stylizations and technique used to carry the story, would suit an old pulp magazine, and might fail to win accolades for its depiction of women. Ballet, like opera, features sensationalist subject matter and exaggerated characters. Furthermore, as the audience usually knows the story, they cannot help but anticipate the ending. The script to Black Swan, then, reflects its subject matter. You may or may not excuse its excesses on these grounds. Judging from the film's generally favourable response, most audiences have, at least, excused its excesses.
The cast give excellent performances. Natale Portman proves convincing as our troubled protagonist, a victim of a disturbing stage mother, an abusive choreographer, a jealous ex-star, and her own personal demons. Mila Kunis, hitherto known as Jackie from That 70s Show and Meg from Family Guy, gives an eye-opening performance as Lily, the dark counterpart to Portman's obsessed, tightly-controlled artist. Lily drinks and smokes and does drugs. She sleeps around off-stage, and speaks her mind backstage. As the story develops, we wonder how desperately she wants Nina's part. I also found myself wondering to what degree she exists, and how much of her personality comes from Nina's need for a shadow self. Lily, in scenes real and imaginary, helps guide Nina into darkness. As Nina descends, her performance as the Black Swan improves, but she loses touch with reality.
Special effects help illustrate our dancer's transformation. While occasionally cheesey, they blend nicely with more grounded views of the world. Nina’s skin turns to pustuled swanflesh-- no, that's the light playing tricks with her veil. Her feet grow webs—no, her battered and compressed toes have fused where they bleed.
The film passes through clever choreography, fractured visions, and sexual scenes to its horrific, if anticipated, finale. We're left with a well-directed, well-acted, thrilling film—and questions about whether we need excess to entertain us, and whether Hollywood believes women and artists can suffer for their art and still thrive.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers
Mila Kunis as Lily
Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy
Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers
Winona Ryder as Beth Macintyre
Benjamin Millepied as David
Stanley Herman as Uncle Hank
I prepared this without knowing Glowing Fish also intended to post a review. Make what you will of similarities in our responses.