Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, from a story by John J. McLaughlin, is a creepy, ravishing journey through the mind of one woman, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, brilliant), a top-flight ballerina in a top-flight ballet company in New York, as she tries to transform her career with the role of a lifetime, as the Swan Queen in the company's new production of "Swan Lake." (The balance of this review may contain spoilers. You make the call.)
The film begins with a ghostly laugh over black--by the end of the film we'll know the who and why of that, maybe--then plunges directly into Nina's dream world, as she dances the Swan Queen in a sea of impossible, theatrical black. Is just it a dream, or also a premonition? The costumes she and her dream dance partner wear are exactly the same as we see in the later production as it develops, to the feather.
But we first meet Nina as a struggling member of the company, obsessed with the discipline of training and dance, dedicated if unsure of her future in her current position. The company's lead dancer, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, formidable and fearless), is still featured on the billboard outside the theater, a towering reminder of who is the star there, who the chorus. But whispers among the rest of the team about Beth's age and temperament soon materialize into the news that, in fact, a new lead dancer is being sought for the company, and for the new "Swan Lake."
Whether fully conscious of it herself or not, whether prepared or not, Nina has been waiting for this moment for a long time. A thousand pressures--pressures she's placed on herself, pressures handed down daily by a demanding, possessive, passive-aggressive mother (Barbara Hershey, excellent) with whom she lives and who has her own ballet history and plans and dreams for Nina, professional pressures--begin to converge and build within Nina's mind.
And what an explosion when it comes. As soon as the role is hers, passersby begin to transform into eerie doppelgängers with changing faces. Mirrors become unfaithful. Another dancer in the company who expresses some interest and concern for Nina, Lily (Mila Kunis, wonderful), becomes a minor obsession for Nina, as competitor, confidante, saboteur, perhaps lover. Conflicts between Nina and her mother make us unsure whether Nina will even make it to the stage for opening night, much less whether she'll dance to the specifications of her director (Vincent Cassel, perfect), or reach the acting and artistic heights he continually taunts her to attempt.
As far as doppelgängers go, Black Swan could be a thesis on them. Whatever facial resemblances there are among Portman, Hershey as her mother, Kunis, Ryder and others as her rivals, are opened up to us in complex ways by Aronofsky and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Every mysterious dramatic meaning they could possess is finely exercised. Beyond the film itself, Portman's features are made to conjure her own other memorable film roles, as well as, certainly, at least, Audrey Hepburn.
The film can be understood, alternately or simultaneously, as an extended metaphor about mental illness, or for all the fears to which the human body is heir, or for method acting, youth, beauty, the creation of art itself. Whatever one's final conclusion about the meaning of the film, all of these metaphors work and work together or separately. There is no chink in the symbolic armor of this Black Swan. Finally, an artist stands alone and produces something, something separate from everything else in her life, yet impossible to extricate from every moment that has come before. In an important sense, the film is just as much about Portman, Ryder, Kunis, Cassel, McLaughlin, Aronofsky & c. as film artists as about Nina Sayers the ballerina.
How much of the film is supposed to be "real," within the narrative at least, is highly debatable. Everything is filtered through Nina's obsessive point of view. Is she cracking up? Where does she crack up irreversibly and leave us watching the shards of her overheated brain? Are her hallucinations schizophrenia, acting exercises or simply as contained as they might be presented on their face? Again, you make the call. I believe it's useful, entertaining and illuminating to consider all the possibilities. The moments of the film itself will not condemn any lively interpretation, nor waste time or interest on gimmicks, or physics. It's pure perfect Jungian high art and madness. The startling and still subtle visual effects are visually and dramatically seamless. Tchaikovsky, techno and original music by Clint Mansell make a dream suite.
I've seen the film several times by now (okay, four), and its secrets change. Some of the tricks--none cheap--which work one way upon first viewing, alter some of their particular effect with repeated viewings, but lose no power because of that, in fact, this added to my admiration for the whole business. Black Swan is an astonishing masterwork fully worthy of all praise, and certainly a Best Picture, Director or Actress Academy Award win. It enters my best of 2010 list after only Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It is a haunting story of art, athletics and one memorable female person, for sure. Exiting, each time, I felt like I'd been dancing for days.
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