Searingly dark, haunting and intense, BLACK SWAN is a remarkable look at a person's discovery of their inner demons. The fact that the film's focus is exclusively on that one character makes it impossible for us to get to know any of the supporting players, because we see everything from the protagonist's (mostly warped) perspective, but that's fine, because it doesn't make this any less of a fascinating cinematic experience. In 2010, we've already had other films with unreliable main characters (namely SHUTTER ISLAND and THE KILLER INSIDE ME), but none of them can top what is accomplished in BLACK SWAN. The film is beautiful and horrifying, and I mean both adjectives in the best possible sense.
The person whose mind BLACK SWAN penetrates is Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballet dancer who lives in an apartment with her mother (Barbara Hershey). The leader of the ballet company that Nina belongs to is Thomas (Vincent Cassel), and he's organizing a production called "The Swan Lake," which features two characters that are of particular importance to the film's plot: there's the White Swan, a pure girl who is in love with a prince, and then there's the Black Swan, the seductress who ends up stealing the prince from the White Swan. What Thomas wants is for the same ballerina to play BOTH roles, and he chooses Nina to take on that task. It turns out that Nina is PERFECT for the role of the White Swan because, well, of how "perfect" she is. Nina is 100% precise in her ballet movements and doesn't make a single mistake. However, Thomas expects something different when it comes to playing the Black Swan: he wants imprecision, looseness, seduction. He needs someone who can literally lose herself on stage while playing this dark character. Nina doesn't fare as well here. She's too much of a "sweet girl," as her subtly domineering mother constantly refers to her. A possible threat to the casting of Nina comes when another member of the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), shows that she's got all the spice and allure needed to play the Black Swan. The film takes us on a descent into the darkest places of Nina's mind as her paranoia and desperation reign supreme throughout the entire running time, growing more and more intense as we approach the evening of the performance.
BLACK SWAN will resonate in a particularly harrowing way with those of us who are perfectionists in life, who try to be 100% well-meaning and precise in everything we do and hardly ever give in to passions for fear of steering in the wrong direction. For those of us who've never "done anything wrong," the thought of possibly exploring our dark side can be both tempting and terrifying. The film is never too obvious in depicting Nina's mother as oppressive, but it often comes across in an expertly subtle way. There's a particular scene in which a lot is said in only a matter of seconds: the mother arrives home with a celebration cake with a ballerina on it (as if Nina were still 12), and when Nina refuses to eat a slice because she has a stomachache, the mother brashly threatens to throw the entire cake in the garbage. During a scene in which Nina claims that she isn't a virgin, the tragically innocent and hesitant look on her face reveals the truth.
Prior to the film's roller-coaster of a climax, one of its best moments comes when Lily asks Nina to break the rules for once and go out partying with her rather than staying home with her mother and going to bed early. Nina accepts, and when she and Lily meet two guys at a bar, we instantly assume that Nina will finally be able to get in touch with herself sexually with this guy that she'll hopefully hook up with. But BLACK SWAN is nowhere near as tame as that. This is an incredibly dark motion picture. The way the evening actually ends is a searing shocker, and what we discover later about what may or may not have happened is even worse. That's because, as we soon realize, we're looking at things from the perspective of someone who is truly losing her mind. Nina's desperate, haphazard attempt at getting in touch with her dark side in order to be able to perfectly embody the Black Swan is like a mad descent into hell during which we're teased with images and events that may or may not be real, but they never cease to be stupefying and engrossing.
Where other directors would be more subtle with their visual imagery, Darren Aronofsky is the exact opposite. Some people who have watched the film have correctly drawn comparisons to the subject matter of his last film (THE WRESTLER), but BLACK SWAN is a thousand times more shocking and visceral. It may not have had the scathing emotional effect that REQUIEM FOR A DREAM's final minutes had on me, but it's still a film that you simply can't look away from. In fact, the only problem that truly sticks out in BLACK SWAN is its occasional unnecessary venturing into horror movie territory. I counted two intentional "boo!" moments, both involving the sudden appearance of an unexpected person. Inserting "boo!" moments into what is already a haunting movie due to its subject matter and its occasionally gut-wrenching visual imagery is simply something that momentarily cheapens the viewing experience. It's a lot more effective to play at disturbing the viewer's mind than to play at trying to get the viewer to jump in his/her seat.
The range of emotions that Natalie Portman has to capture in her depiction of Nina is simply staggering, and the fact that the role was also so physically arduous makes her work in BLACK SWAN even more mind-blowing. Those calling it the best performance of her career may be right, though I wouldn't be so quick to forget her remarkable turn in CLOSER or to reject the possibility that someone as young as her still has a chance to out-do herself in a future performance. Still, Portman's bravura entrance into the depths of psychological hell in this particular film is overwhelmingly great. Because she's in every scene of the film, she outshines everyone else, so it's difficult to say much about Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis, though they all hold their own reasonably well.
There were some who used the adjective "Kubrickian" to refer to this year's INCEPTION, and as much as I loved INCEPTION, it has to be said that "Kubrickian" is far more appropriate an adjective for BLACK SWAN, or rather, for its final act, which is nothing short of a frenetic, delightfully twisted conclusion. It becomes literally impossible to tell which events are truly happening and which ones are simply in Nina's mind, which is what leaves the ending somewhat open to interpretation. Unsure as one may be as to what actually happened to Nina, there's no doubt that the journey into her mind proves to be a blood-curdling cinematic experience, and a very good one at that.