Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), artistic director of (presumably), the New York City Ballet company, has decided to replace the prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) with someone younger for the new production of Swan Lake. The innocent and graceful Nina (Natalie Portman) is perfect for the role of the white swan, whereas Lily (Mila Kunis) embodies the guile and sensuality of the black swan. But the dual role can only be played by one of them, and so begins the rivalry between the two women.
It's a description that could apply to almost any ballet film, but Black Swan is not your traditional dance movie. Loosely following the story of Swan Lake, it's really a highly conceptual psychological thriller.
Director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) has certainly made an amazing film here and makes highly theatrical use of costumes, make-up and shots. Matthew Libatique, the cinematographer, and Amy Westcott, the costume designer, both deserve recognition for their excellent work in this film. These aspects all work together to tell the story in a dramatic fashion. While the dramatic costumes for the white and black swan are amazing, it is also the use of colours and clothes that reveal the tensions and drama of the story.
Alongside this is a sound design which literally made me nauseous. If you are the type of person who finds it difficult to see blood or self harm then more than likely you will find particular scenes in this film very difficult to watch, just like I did. I found myself squirming in my seat, wishing I could get away and blocking my ears while trying to avoid being judged by those around me. It's not an easy thing for a film the achieve, but Black Swan has that affect on you.
Portman definitely deserved the Golden Globe win for her performance, however the entire cast is superb. Barbara Hershey is perfect as Erica, Nina's psychotic mother, and it's their relationship that fuels the feeling of an evil presence lurking just underneath the surface. This is integral to the story as Nina attempts to attain perfection in her portrayal of the Swan Queen. Kunis is excellent also as the new ballerina in the company, though her rivalry with Nina stems more from Nina's own insecurities and her obsession with perfection than it does hers. If there's a problem it's that it aims so high and, while all the aspects of the film are done very well, it does make it difficult to enjoy as the character the film revolves around, Nina, is so unhinged.
This is a very well made movie; Aronofsky has clearly put a lot of particular effort into all facets of this film. It's highly theatrical (I can see it becoming a stage show one day soon). The problem is that despite all of its qualities, it amounts to less than the sum of its parts - it's missing a certain something. **Spoiler alert** This manifests specifically in the rivalry between Lily and Nina, which exists only in Nina's mind, having by then lost touch with reality through a life spent entirely devoted to ballet. I had to agree with the characters in the film that the pressure of the role was taking its toll which also makes the film a very interesting commentary on the obsessive search for perfection. Black Swan is very good film. It's well worth watching at the cinemas but it doesn't quite live up to the hype.