There are movies that when audiences leave the theater - they never speak of them again. Not because the film is bad but because it is so utterly forgettable. Then there are films like Black Swan. Viewing Black Swan is a date with the sublime. It is a film that invites the viewer to get lost in its world, colors, thrills, and then escape from the theater electrified.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is an innocent, virginal, ballerina whose figure is as malnourished as her mind. Her bedroom is like a child's, with pink wallpaper, stuffed animals, and even a jewelry box that plays her to sleep to the tune of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The room is her prison and her mother (Barbara Hersey,) a failed ballerina with an unrelenting need to see her daughter succeed, is the jailor.
When the director of the New York ballet company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel,) ditches his aging star (Winona Ryder) in his casting of his new "stripped down" and "visceral" version of Swan Lake, he transfers the role of the Swan Queen to Nina. The role is complicated by the fact that it is actually two roles, the innocent and beautiful White Swan and the provocative and sensual Black Swan.
Nina is the perfect White Swan, obsessively perfect and weakly innocent, but she has no trace of a Black Swan in her. As Nina struggles to release and control her Black Swan, the pressure begins to attack her fragile mind.
Nina begins to fall apart, both figuratively and literally; in one scene she peels back her skin as easily as one might peel back a banana peel. Nothing is quite what it seems for both Nina and the audience, as the film presents a first hand look at the world through the filter of pure insanity.
To further complicate things, competition for the Swan Queen arrives in the form of Lily (Mila Kunis) an out of town dancer who so perfectly embodies the Black Swan, a style of dance Nina can't even begin to perform. Nina blames Lily for all of her own inadequacies and before too long Lily becomes an overwhelming force of nature in Nina's life.
The story of Black Swan is arresting and constantly engaging, the kind of engagement that leaves fearful grip-marks on the arms of theater seats. The most brilliant thing about the story, that makes itself quickly apparent, is that the film is a literal retelling of Swan Lake.
This makes the major points of the film somewhat predictable, but the magic isn't in the broad strokes, but how we get there. The final hour of the film is a nonstop rollercoaster ride that provides the most compelling and exciting moments in cinema this year.
What makes the film so engaging is exactly how the characters are balanced between two extremes. The screenwriters (Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin) should be given full credit for creating characters that are never quite what they appear to be. In a film about a young woman's fragmented self, that is full of doppelgangers and mirrors, it is equally interesting that each character often exemplifies their own opposite.
The ballet director is sexually aggressive but at the same time his actions are coming from his own desire to see the show improve, does that make them acceptable? Lily appears to be a friendly understudy, but is she really trying to undermine Nina to get her role? Nina's mother cares passionately for Nina, but does she care a little too much? All these questions feed directly into Nina's own growing paranoia and unease as the first show of Swan Lake approaches, and contribute to her downfall.
Without incredible actors this effort would be all for nothing. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis both started training six months before the start of filming so that their bodies would match that of professional dancers. Portman, famously, shed 20 pounds from her already thin frame. They both were trained by professional ballet mistresses and perform most of their own ballet in the film.
The focus on body type and torment is a huge part of Black Swan. Portman looks downright skeletal through most of the film, though not quite as much as Christian Bale's appearance in The Machinist. Every bone and muscle in her body is accentuated, which helps emphasize the physical toll that ballet has on a dancer's body.
Portman's performance is the standout, amongst a sea of wonderful performances. She is simply unforgettable, as she channels innocence, madness, and eventually the seductive heat of the Black Swan. The Oscar for Best Actress is Portman's by the end of the first half hour. Much like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Portman begs the audience to share in her experience and take the plunge into lunacy right alongside her.
At the helm of this psychosexual thriller is director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler.) With this film Aronofsky has proven that he truly is a master at making films that are literal versions of powerful metaphors.
What is most interesting is that Aronofsky originally envisioned his film, The Wrestler, to be a film about a wrestler and a ballerina. He made a smart choice in splitting the two up, but they would make an amazing double feature. Both films are incredible depictions of an artist destroying themselves in pursuit of their art.
Plenty of Aronofsky's filmmaking staples are present in Black Swan. The film opens on a beautiful dance number and utilizes his flair for handheld camerawork. This brings the audience into the dance and allows the camera to be like another dancer in the scene. This takes what could have been a typical stage performance of Swan Lake and makes it an incredibly engaging experience.
Aronofsky's films typically feature a body mutilation motif, be it by drug use or razor blade. Black Swan is a bit more reserved than his usual fair, which is artfully done and nothing at all close to something like Hostel or Saw. It is obvious that Aronofsky loves films like The Red Shoes, Repulsion, Carrie, The Fly, and All About Eve as they all make a definite appearance in the film. However, instead of copying or stealing, Aronofsky takes these film references and provides his own incredible and unique spin.
At its heart Black Swan is an incredibly campy film, full of shocks and melodrama. But in the hands of Aronofsky, that genre is pushed to its limits. The film goes beyond horror and slips into the fuzzy world between lucid hallucinations and reality. The film is painted in strokes of black and white, with colors reserved to the childlike pink of Nina's room, that emphasize the duality of Swan Lake and Nina's own mind.
Clint Mansell, Requiem For a Dream, returns to score the film and provides a haunting version of Tchaikovsky's music. Its tones send the audience swirling through the story, as the music changes just as suddenly as it starts and stops.
The sound design is just as masterful. Lead sound designer Craig Henighan, inserts sounds of laughter and chanting at all the right places. He also elevates all the bodily abuse in the film. Toes crack and breathing is strained and exhausting to hear.
All of these equally brilliant things coalesce into what is the best film of the year. Black Swan is greater than the sum of its parts and every part was already the best it could get. The film is dark, violent, and intensely sexual but all with reason. Every single frame of Black Swan echoes the theme of the destructiveness of the artistic process and proves that Aronofsky in his thrilling story about a woman seeking perfection has found it himself.