A movie aptly described (by me) as a live-action version of Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, Black Swan is a grand example of the ‘mind-fuck’ genre. It’s confusing, f-ed up, and very, very weird. But it’s also engaging, interesting, and visually very cool. And I’m not just referring to a surprisingly steamy scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.
Plot summary (source here): Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is an aspiring top ballerina. The role she wants more than any other is that of the Swan Queen in a re-imagining of the ballet Swan Lake by impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). However, while Nina's technical proficiency makes her the perfect choice for the White Swan, she lacks the spontaneity and seductiveness necessary for the Black Swan. A good fit for that role is Lily (Mila Kunis), a new transplant from San Francisco who oozes sexuality. Ultimately, Leroy selects Nina over Lily with the hope that his new top performer will grow into the role. But Nina is a psychological wreck. Not only is she paranoid that Lily is trying to undermine her, but she has a confrontation with Leroy's previous protégé, the damaged Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), and she lives under the thumb of a domineering, overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey). Nina's attempts to get in touch with her darker side put pressure upon an already unstable psyche.
I suppose I should add a disclaimer here. I think I might really like ballet. I’ve only seen two (both at the Pacific Northwest Ballet; The Nutcracker and Coppelia). And while I’ve never seen Swan Lake performed, I’m familiar with and enjoy both the story and music. While Black Swan is far from a filmed ballet (only a handful of scenes actually have much dancing), it does a good job of showing why it is that people enjoy ballet. Of course, it’s also very nearly a horror movie at times. If the two sound like they wouldn’t mix, well, I’d have agreed before I saw it. It works, somehow.
The score (which borrows leitmotifs liberally from Lake) and the dancing segments are both done fantastically. In particular, an extended scene at the very end is breathtaking, and the film goes out with a bang. Portman is great; beyond her skill as an actress, she is also a gifted dancer, and trained heavily before filming began. The results are impressive; Portman is more than merely credible as a prima ballerina, and this allows director Darren Aronofsky to film without needing to rely a dance double except in a few shots.
Good too is Mila Kunis, who shows surprising acting chops (she’s mostly known for comedy, such as That Seventies Show and Forgetting Sarah Mashall). Because the film is very strictly from Nina’s point of view, Kunis’ Lily is a complicated character. We see several hints that the way Nina sees her may not be entirely accurate, and even beyond that, Nina's perception is inconsistent. As a result, Kunis has to play Lily as two or three different characters, and generally does a good job.
Almost as good as Araonofsky’s previous movie The Wrestler (to which it bears some narrative resemblance, especially during the finale), Black Swan is an impressive achievement for everyone involved. Creepy, weird, disturbing, engaging, and sometimes beautiful, it’s one of 2010’s best.
8/10 Very Good.