Black Swan is an intense psychological thriller. And a thriller it is: my heart was racing for half an hour before and after the end of the film.
The film follows an innocent ballet dancer’s journey into her role in a production of Swan Lake. It is almost entirely a character study, a dark sort of coming-of-age film. As the Swan Queen, she is required to play both the parts of the White Swan and the Black Swan. She is naturally affined to the role of the White Swan; it fits her innocence and fearfulness. Her challenge is to be able to play her darker side equally well. Natalie Portman plays Nina, the Swan Queen. Mila Kunis supports as Lily, a new member of the company. Both play their roles with subtlety that’s hard to come by.
You might be averse to watching a film about ballet. Don’t be: the format of film makes it much more exciting than you might think. If you are watching a production on stage, you would see it from afar and could probably discern nothing more than the movements. However, film makes this art far more accessible. You get to be close to the action: the movements, the bodies, and especially important for this film, the emotions. You can see the trembling on her brow. Furthermore, the tense mood and focused cinematography elevate this rendering of the art.
I was on the edge of my seat for most of the film; what happens next is never certain. At points, I couldn’t bear to think of the possibilities that could unfold. You are made to root for her success; anything that distracts her from this is something that is hard to watch. From the onset, the even pace, dark lighting, and quietness create a dark feeling that falls like a blanket on every scene. I don’t think there is a single scene in the sunlight in the entire movie; it seems like the entire movie takes place at night. This adds focus to Nina, which the film unequivocally surrounds.
The real action happens on the stage that is the character Nina. The play itself is a metaphor for her transformation. The aspect of the White Swan is not what is needed to play the part, so Nina turns to that of the Black Swan. This mimic’s the prince’s seduction by the Black Swan over the White Swan. In the climactic scene, we find that as the White Swan dies, Nina’s transformation is complete. The play begets her transformation, yet mirrors it. In one sense, the film is a testament to the transformative power of art and ambition.
The film isn’t flawless. It seemed to me that Nina’s later reactions were unmotivated. There was no clear link between what had happened between her and the other characters to motivate her paranoia. In addition, her conflict with her mother was unresolved. A plot thread can be left unresolved if it is central to the story; we would call that a sort of cliff-hanger. But an unresolved minor thread points to sloppiness in the plot.
Black Swan is a film that I can’t recommend to the general audience. It’s masterful in the creation of a kind of voyeuristic thrill in its viewer. The acting is superb. However, it leaves the question of why she reacted the way she did unanswered. This precludes a sense of closure. You want to be able to ruminate about a film like this; you can’t do that with this kind of ambiguity. Aside from this, the film is simply too viscerally graphic. It is as far from a family film as you can get.