When I sat down to watch Black Swan I really had no idea what to expect, and frankly wasn't too enthused about a film about dancers. Yes, there's lots of drama and politics in a dance troupe - after all that's where "prima dona" comes from -- but would the prospect of watching Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis compete for the lead in a performance really be entertaining?
Turns out that Black Swan is a breathtaking, intense, horrifying and beautiful cinematic essay on obsession, maturity and the fine line between reality and fantasy, and it's well worth seeing, regardless of whether you're interested in ballet.
Portman plays Nina Sayers, a dancer in a Manhattan-based ballet troupe who has mastered the technical requirements of ballet but lacks the passion, sensuousness and soul to be an outstanding prima ballerina. The troupe artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) announces their next performance will be Swan Lake, but he's going to make it edgier, and the lead will need to play both the white swan, an embodiment of all that is sweet, pure and youthful, and the black swan, the dark alter ego, the sexual, aggressive counterpoint to the white swan.
Nina is cast for this role, a role that'll be the pinnacle of her dancing career, but the pressure of performing, the expectations of her obsessive, controlling mother Erica (a superb Barbara Hershey), making sure that the antithetical Lily (Kunis) doesn't steal her part and the challenge of finding the "black swan" within her innocent, child-like personality tear Nina apart, and it's that descent into madness that's the heart of the film.
Black Swan is a powerful movie with just a few small flaws, a definite contender for Best Picture this year, and a strong statement on just how far Portman has come as an actor from her early role in the Star Wars saga. It's also intense, with some alarming scenes and a few nods to horror film conventions, so I don't recommend it for the highly squeamish and will warn you not to be surprised if things aren't always as they seem on screen.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Christopher Nolan's recent Inception (another film in the running for Best Picture) was that what we saw on screen wasn't always what was actually happening in the story. Much better than voiceover narrative, seeing the delusions, fears, daydreams and hallucinations of characters can be far more powerful, and in Black Swan, there are frequent scenes where the viewer is left asking whether it really transpired or was symptomatic of Nina's gradual loss of her grip on reality.
The film that Black Swan most reminded me of, however, was the intense and powerful 1984 French film Carmen, directed by Francesco Rosi. Carmen focuses on an opera company that gets caught up in the interpersonal complexities of the love triangle in the Bizet opera, even as they rehearse the opera itself. Roger Ebert opined that Carmen is the "Indiana Jones of opera films".
Lily (Mila Kunis) and Nina (Natalie Portman) share a meal in Black Swan
Both films share an obvious parallel between the story that the troupe is preparing to perform and the lives of the performers themselves. Nina is the white swan, with her alarmingly child-like life, including a domineering mother who refuses to let her grow up and a bedroom full of stuffed animals. Lily is the black swan, dark, sultry, sexual, uninhibited, and with ambiguous intentions and motivations.
Lily is also the temptress, encouraging Nina to rebel against her mother and hook up with men, try recreational drugs, get drunk, and finally lose her virginity. It's telling that after they go to a nightclub and meet up with some guys, however, Nina's fantasy of how the evening ends has Lily making love to her, not one of the men. Or is it Lily? I'll say this: Portman and Kunis making love was one of the sexiest scenes I've seen this year, even as it was creepy.
Black Swan is only the fifth film that Darren Aronofsky has directed. His earlier films are Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler. As with those, he does let some gimmicks slip into Black Swan, most notably the obvious cliché use of mirrors to presumably cue the viewer about the deeper meaning of a given scene, but if this is his fifth film, I can only imagine with pleasant anticipation what he'll be doing ten films from now.
Ultimately, Black Swan isn't about ballet, it's about obsession and perfection, it's about being so focused on a goal that everything else in life either helps achieve that goal or is a waste and needs to be ignored or ejected. Nina's descent into madness is as inevitable as it is painful - and alarming - to watch, and Portman's performance is superb. The film is a reminder of why balance in life is critical, of how every truly good person is a careful balance of black and white, of good and evil. It's also one of the best movies of the year.