That sound you hear in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is the sound of scratching — the scratching on the smooth soles of ballet slippers for greater grip; the scratching of fingernails on raw skin; and the scratching of the audience's heads as they wrestle with just what kind of movie is unfolding before their disbelieving eyes. The pieces that make up this mystifying jigsaw include the mad mother from Gothic horror, the disintegrating young woman from Polanski's Repulsion, the vampiric personality transfers of Bergman's Persona, the reckless excesses of camp and the horror film, and the utterly romantic notion (fittingly underscored by the utterly Romantic music of Tchaikovsky) that great art can only be produced at a great cost. It all comes together in a great big splotch, a piece of avant-garde art that means whatever you want it to.
The story opens with a spotlight trained on Nina (Natalie Portman), who dreams of dancing the lead — or leads; the virginal White Swan and the vicious Black Swan — in Swan Lake. This excerpt sets the tone for Nina's story, which plays out like a perversely twisted variation on (or, a deliberate desecration of) the beloved ballet. Nina is the White Swan, her doppelganger Black Swan is Lily (an excellent Mila Kunis), her mother (Erica, played by Barbara Hershey) is the Queen, the older ballerina that Nina has replaced (Beth, played by Winona Ryder) is the Dying Swan (from a completely different ballet, with music by Saint-Saëns), and so forth.
In a cautionary, Dickensian sense, Erica, Lily and Beth may well represent Nina's past, present and future — the overbearing mother who was once a ballerina like Nina, the young dancer who is Nina's contemporary, and the cruelly extinguished star that Nina will eventually become. If you choose to look at Black Swan as a horror story, these are the ghosts that haunt Nina, the ones whose baleful clutches she must escape. If you'd rather see this as a psychological drama, then these women represent the barriers she has to overcome in order to successfully transform into the White/Black Swans. And that she does, as her skin peels away, her toes are fused with webbing, she sprouts feathers...
Or does she? Is any of this real, or is it just taking place inside her head? Does Portman deliver an overrated single-note performance, or is her unvarying tremulousness a reflection of her unwavering obsession. When she finally transforms into a force of nature capable of embodying the Black Swan by breaking a mirror, is she destroying her own self? And speaking of selves, why are there mirror-doubles everywhere — on the trains Nina takes, in her bathroom, on her bed?
Aronofsky's symbolism is rampant. It's not enough that Beth was her dance instructor's former muse; she must, in her final performance, play Melpomene, the Muse. You'd laugh if you weren't so disoriented, and that's what makes Black Swan so perversely, so compulsively watchable, the sight of a major filmmaker teetering to find a tonal balance between a high-minded ballet feature and a lowbrow exploitation flick that's unashamed to take its title from an ABBA hit about a pretty ballerina named Nina. In this mélange, there's possibly a message too, about unleashing your inner demon if you want to be a real artist. Or perhaps it's a warning about the dangers of Method acting, of going too far in becoming one with the character. The possibilities for deconstructive film-school analyses are endless.
Genre: Psychological Drama (or is it Horror?)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey.
Storyline: A ballerina gets the part of a lifetime. Will the cost be her life?
Bottomline: Gorgeous to look at, and thoroughly gripping