So, Darren Aronofsky's scary ballerina movie. It's like nothing he's done before, or anybody else for that matter. Is it breathtaking? Is it profound? Is it silly? Does it get a bit muddled? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Spoilers ahead!
You pretty much have to take Black Swan on its own terms — that's true of every movie, but it's especially true with this one. You can't judge Black Swan based on what you expect it to be, you have to judge it based on what Aronofsky and his crew wanted it to be. And right off the bat, I'll just say — if the phrase "artsy horror movie about ballerinas" doesn't get you kind of excited and intrigued, this film probably isn't for you.
Still here? Good. Then I'll add that if you're even somewhat intrigued by the idea of Black Swan, you'll find the finished product even more intriguing. It's a really daring concept: In a nutshell, Darren Aronofsky has mashed up two vastly different genres: an artsy film about the struggles and rivalries of creative people (think Amadeus), and a horror movie about possession (think The Unborn). And for that, he gets plus a million points for ambition, and several million points for style.
But what do you get when you mash up horror and artistic struggles? It's not just a film that suggest that the struggles to be a great artist are scary. Black Swan suggests that there is something creepy, damaging, dangerous about the process of creating art. There have been tons of fantasy stories that portray artist-hood as magical and intrinsic to the process of creating enchantments — but in some sense, Aronofsky is doing the opposite, hinting that artisthood is dark, evil magic.
So what's it about? Nina (Natalie Portman) is an aspiring ballerina who wants the lead role in her company's bold new production of Swan Lake. But Nina has a problem: She can dance the virginal, pure White Swan perfectly, because she's a repressed quasi-virgin who still lives with her mom. Nina can't, however, dance the seductive, evil Black Swan, who's basically the evil twin of the White Swan. And then a new dancer shows up in the company — Lily (Mila Kunis), who's slutty and evil and basically Nina's real-life evil twin. As Nina tries to find the Black Swan within herself, she finds Lily becoming more powerful and more menacing. And seductive.
(Just to make the White Swan/Black Swan thing more explicit, in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, there's a beautiful princess who gets trapped in the form of a white swan. She needs true love to break the spell, and she almost gets it from a handsome prince — but a Black Swan impersonates her and seduces her true love away from her. So the White Swan kills herself. This is sort of an oversimplification/reinvention of the actual Tchaikovsky ballet, in which both the prince and the swan-girl usually kill themselves.)
It's incredibly allegorical, and none of the characters ever quite rises above the level of one-dimensional archetypes. If you were to take the movie literally, you'd come away thinking the message was, "No grown woman in her mid-twenties should still be living with her mother." But of course, you're not going to take this film literally, because you had the chance to stop reading this review if you weren't intrigued by the idea of a horror film about ballet.
As the film goes on, Nina sees more and more scary stuff, including weird scars on her back, strange visions in the mirror, and — as you've probably seen in the trailers — a black feather moulting out of her skin. And more stuff. When Nina's in a group of other people, the film is mostly shot like a film about ballet, lots of close-ups of feet and tense dancing sequences. (Except there are mirrors in almost every shot, and they sometimes hold menace if you look carefully.) But when Nina's on her own, the film is suddenly shot like a horror movie, with the same camera angles and scary music as any exorcism/possession film.
Is Nina just losing her shit? Is there really an evil force infesting her life? It's not really a spoiler to say the film leaves things a bit ambiguous — that's the type of film this is. But if what we're witnessing is just a descent into madness, then the fact that it's filmed like a horror story is sort of provocative — and in the end, it doesn't matter. The evil spirit, or madness, stands in for the cost of going to a dark place within yourself in order to create a work of art that can contain both light and darkness. Allegory.
So Lily, the real-life evil twin, at times seems to be helping Nina to achieve her true potential, and at other times seems intent on replacing or destroying Nina. Of course, because Lily is the opposite of Nina, she'll be able to dance the Black Swan but not the White Swan — although, curiously, nobody ever points this out.
The real dilemma that faces Nina? She's a virgin who needs to pass as a whore, in a story that recognizes virgins and whores as the only two possible types of women. But if she actually becomes a whore, then she can't be virgin ever again, because it's a one-way transformation.
But that's too simplistic a reading of this film — because in the end, Aronofsky's not interested in sexuality or personal identity, except as incidentals. He's only interested in the artist as both the monster and its victim. And to his credit, he does make the ballet sequences beautiful, and the ballet does a lot of heavy lifting in this film (literally and figuratively.) As someone who knows almost nothing about ballet, I was still able to follow the ballet-based storytelling, and see how Nina's performance became more beautiful and powerful as the demonic grip of the Black Swan grew stronger.
Really, a movie like Black Swan lives or dies based on how well it portrays beauty — and Black Swan leaves you in no doubt that you're watching something beautiful.
And yet, the central metaphor, about Nina's inner Black Swan and her relationship with her real-life evil twin, does seem to grow a bit muddled in the final half hour of the film. Giving Nina a real-life doppelganger as well as an "evil side" inside herself means that there's not just a relationship between the good Nina and the evil Lily, but also between the evil Nina and the evil Lily, and I'm not sure I understood how that developed.
And as for the silliness — the relationship between Nina and her mom (Barbara Hershey) is definitely one of the movie's major weak spots. Nina's mom is such a caricature of an evil smother-mother that she's actually hard to watch at times, and I found myself laughing at some of the mother daughter scenes, that I don't think were meant to be funny. Oh, and speaking of silliness, there's a way-over-the-top masturbation scene that's kind of unintentionally funny.
In the end, Black Swan is what it is — it's a brave, inspirational film about the abyss that creative people have to stare (and dive) into. It's a fascinating genre mash-up that works better than it probably ought to. It's a somewhat clumsy take on women's rivalries and relationships. It's a unique film, and it's well worth seeing for anybody who wants to see a fearless act of raw invention.