Black Swan tells the story of “the exquisite Nina Seyers” (Natalie Portman), a ballerina chosen to re-enact the Swan Queen in a new edition of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in New York City. The director of the play, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) has doubts about Nina’s capabilities as the Black Swan but is impressed by her charms as the innocent White Swan. When Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the company from San Francisco, Nina feels threatened and finds her precious position in danger. Her striving for perfection and effort to keep her lead role begin to trouble her and send her into a psychological downward spiral.
For Natalie Portman, this is the role of a lifetime. She’s trained for months, lost weight, learnt ballet, cracked a rib, and all other sorts of things most film roles don't require actors to go through. When she appears on the screen, you forget all that and only see the fruit of all that effort. She's fully immersed herself in Nina Sayers. Portman has never been in such command of her characters. She owns Nina with the perfect balance of control and abandon and plays her with such depth that the sense of endless anxiety and scare, which could have been easily overplayed, feels fresh at every turn. In one of her best scenes early on in the film, she calls her mother to tell her about winning her audition. The audience can practically feel the physical weight of expectation and hope being lifted off her shoulder.
Natalie Portman’s rather limited acting skills and her physique have kept her more on the “virginal innocent” side in her past roles. To see Leroy challenge her to play the darker, more vicious Black Swan literally visualizes the idea that Aronofsky was challenging Portman to do the same with the role behind the scenes. Barbara Hershey is equally terrific as Nina’s mother, a ballerina who never had the chance to shine. Hershey is an actress who never really had the spotlight to herself throughout her career but has proven that she deserved it. Winona Ryder plays another ballerina, one who shone at the centre of the stage but her age and the emergence of new stars have driven her out to the sidelines. All three casting decisions mirror similar circumstances in the lives of the performers' real life persona, and all three actresses handle their role with exquisite precision.
The below-the-line talent is no less impressive. The bird theme in the settings, the decoration of the pink room, the costume design that feels original despite the countless variations of Swan Lake that have been out there before, and Matthew Libatique’s dynamic camerawork all intrigue on different levels. Above all, Clint Mansell does to this film what he did with Requiem for a Dream, which is to say Black Swan would have been completely unimaginable in its current shape had the composer been different. There is a big challenge here in making the music pop in spite of Swan Lake's familiarity and its abundant use in the film, but Mansell proves to be a worthy collaborator for Aronofsky, contributing greatly to his aura of progressive creativity.
Aronofsky's work, his first foray into full horror, is the most audacious directing of the year. He succeeds in combining campy horror with backstage drama and even inject humor at the right moments. Aronofsky understands how bizarre and outlandish his endeavour is and has learned to shed some of the Seriousness with Capital S of his previous films. He doesn’t try to be perfect; he doesn’t “let himself become his own worst enemy”, but he lets go. The truth is, as surreal as the film may be, you can’t just look at Nina, but you have to become Nina. Aronofsky facilitates that by throwing us in the her world head on. We’re as terrified as Nina is when the lights shut out backstage, or when her mother tries to break into her room. We cringe when we hear her foot cracking a few times as she stretches and we feel her distress in the final climactic scene in her dressing room.
What I find interesting in Aronofsky’s direction here is his adherence to familiar formulas, but concocting a film that on the whole still feels original. Even in the super-hyped lesbian sex scene, Aronofsky doesn’t show us anything we haven’t seen before; it’s the same sexual coding used since the 60s: show the look of orgasm on the woman's face and that’s all the “sex” we see on screen. Yet, nowhere through the movie will you feel that you’ve seen any of it before. Black Swan itself embodies what Leroy states about Swan Lake in the beginning of the film: “Done to death, but never like this”.
This is by no means a perfect film. It’s overtly melodramatic, loud, and over-the-top. Yet, if you can align yourself with Aronofsky’s vision, these imperfections only make the film more endearing. Black Swan is the boldest and most visceral film of the year, and is a reminder that if more directors so fearlessly painted their pieces with all their heart and soul as Aronofsky does, we’d be in for a hell of a treat every time we stepped in the theatre.