I'm unsure of how to discuss Black Swan, or even my expectations of it, without possible spoilers. You've been warned.
Black Swan poster © 2010 Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Just about all of the essential ingredients of Black Swan show up right away, from the main character, Nina, to the central action, dance, to the recurring motif of mirrors and the intermittent diversions into fantasy and/or delusion.
Here's the basic plot for those who haven't seen the film — directed by Darren Aronofsky, whose career spans such respected work as 1998's π and 2008's The Wrestler — but decided to read on anyway: Nina Sayers is a ballerina chosen to play the lead in a prominent company's new production of Swan Lake. The company's previous star player is being forcibly retired; Nina is the new model, just as she's in many ways a younger incarnation of her controlling single mother, who pours her own frustrated dreams and neuroses into Nina. A recent transplant to the New York City company from the opposite coast, Lily, is presented figuratively if not literally as Nina's dark twin, a rival both like and unlike her in a parallel to the White Swan / Black Swan dichotomy of the ballet itself. Company director Thomas Leroy did not cast Nina without hesitation, as he feels she possesses the technical precision but not the passion necessary for the role, yet her very desperation apparently convinces him that she will rise to the occasion.
It's almost impossible not to add "or die trying" to that last bit, reflexively, whether you've seen the movie or not, but I must admit that even the possibility of Black Swan going there didn't occur to me until the moment came when it flirted with exactly that. What did occur to me was all sorts of stuff that ends up not actually being part of the film, and therein lies some of my disappointment with it.
I didn't get to see Black Swan for several weeks into its local release, longer still after the promotional clips and initial reviews hit. Advance buzz seemed to suggest that there was at least a mystery about whether the film was a human-level psychodrama or an explicitly supernatural thriller, if not a strong implication of the latter. Did Nina really begin to sprout wings? Was Lily some kind of manifestation of Nina's subconscious? Did others even see Lily or was she, whether as a true spectre or simply a figment of Nina's fevered mind, visible only to Nina in that sly cinematic way that films like The Sixth Sense slowly reveal to us? I studiously avoided conversations and criticism that might give such secrets away.
Except that I needn't have worried, because these tantalizing possibilities aren't really presented by the movie after all. Whether this was a trick of the marketing or of my own misconceptions, I couldn't help but feel that, no matter the conflicts and mounting tension that did exist, the elements of suspense that I'd expected from Black Swan weren't there. Oh, Nina is mentally unstable, eventually to an extreme degree — her sanity ending up in direct disproportion to her physical prowess on the stage. It's pretty clear early on that Lily is flesh and blood, however, and that Nina herself, whose demanding chosen pursuit and home life with an obsessive parent are a dangerous mix, is the sole source of the film's increasing excursions into Grand Guignol.
Natalie Portman deserves the acclaim she's received for inhabiting the role of Nina. Her physical dedication alone is impressive, but she embodies all the aspects of the character convincingly. Barbara Hershey as Nina's creepily controlling mother, Winona Ryder as the company's outgoing diva, Vincent Cassel as Thomas, and especially Mila Kunis as Lily, who fittingly has to play something of a dual role as Nina's intimate hallucinogenic doppelganger and a casually external character whole unto herself, all turn in fine performances.
Aronofsky, his writers, and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, as much as they thrilled me with some visual flourishes, are who let me down. I was distracted by the frequent in-your-face and over-the-shoulder traveling close-ups, which may have been intended to convey constant, claustrophobic unease but just looked silly. Nina's descent into madness as she attempts to grow — artistically, sexually, personally — brought me little reward for the darkness I had to endure. Black Swan was haunting, yes, and it's true that I can't know how I'd have experienced it if I hadn't entered with a degree of unmet expectations, but I suspect that, like now, I would feel that the camera was often awkward, the plot thin, and the calamitous arc of the main character sad without, basically, the rest of the film being creatively satisfying enough to overcome those debits as sometimes happens. Despite the accomplished acting, Nina's plight felt merely inevitable without quite being tragic in the emotional sense.
There is plenty in Black Swan to keep film students occupied, with its fractured imagery, the potential implications of the characters' names, its many variations on doubles and duplicity. What the movie isn't, much as I wanted it to be, is singularly great.