In terms of technique, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is arguably a masterpiece. The way Aronofsky manipulates sight, sound and editing to create this story of ambition and madness, shows that he is truly one those increasingly-rare directors who is worthy of the title "filmmaker," as oppossed to "glorified video game and/or music video maker."
So why am I not yet ready to tout Black Swan as "the film of the year?" Because for all its technical marvel - and wonderful performances - the movie falls short of its primary goal: conveying a moving and/or interesting story.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has been a dedicated little ballerina all her life, but even though she belongs to a prestigious New York ballet company, she's never really had her opportunity to shine in the limelight, center stage. That all changes when the director of the company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), decides that his former star and "little princess," Beth (Winona Ryder), no longer has the necessary magic to light up the stage. Thomas has a new and edgy interpretation of "Swan Lake" planned and he needs a Swan Queen who can embody both the light and dark aspects of the soul. He knows Nina has what it takes to embody the light side, but the quiet, timid, girl lacks that dark edge of a true Black Swan.
Enter Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer who is wild and passionate where Nina is disciplined and almost robotically precise. Lily quickly catches Thomas' attention and as she and Nina get closer, Nina begins fear that her position as queen is in danger of being usurped.
While this might sound like the plot of a good thriller, in truth, Black Swan only borrows select parts from that genre, while it also attempts to stitch a patchwork together from a strange mix of other genres, including Film Noir and late 70s/early 80s horror films. The Noir influences can be seen in the distorted framing of characters' faces and New York City terrain, giving an atmosphere of ominousness at all times (an echo of Nina's attitude about the world). The horror/thriller movie influences are found in many scenes in which Nina is alone and her fragile mind begins to buckle under the pressure. All the classic tropes are there - freakish "reflection" shots, see-it-now-you-don't jump scares, sound bridging that blends the noise of one scene into another - classic tricks designed to keep you, the viewer, as edgy and frightened as Nina. The message here is clear: professional artistry and/or athleticism can be more draining and hellish than a weekend at Camp Crystal Lake.
Of course, the film is also comprised of the signatures that have come to define Aronofsky. The influence of the director's more artsy and stylish early work (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) can be seen in the close-up shots and sequences of feet at work, nails being cut, dancers' shoulders and arms in motion and other areas of physicality and routine that Aronofsky manages to make feel precarious and edgy. The influence of The Wrestler, on the other hand, can be seen at points where the director presses the camera almost uncomfortably close on Nina, hovering just on or over her shoulder wherever she goes to the point (which I suspect is THE point) that a clear visual metaphor is established: to this character there is no outside world, only the world as it exists in her mind.
This would be an intriguing approach if Nina was a more intriguing character. However, sadly, for me, this was not the case. I will say that Portman delivers an impassioned performance in this film, in the sense that she wholeheartedly attacks the role in much the same way that her character is asked to attack a set of pirouettes at one point. Yet Nina is not what I would call a complex or interesting character - in fact, I dare say she is one-note: crazy. From the moment the film opens, it's clear that this person we are supposed to identify with and follow has an obvious screw loose - her mom has a screw loose, their home life is screwy (think Carrie) and Nina always seems to have her emotions screwed with by the one thing she is supposed to love: dancing.
Taken altogether, I found it hard to buy that this character - who never once in the film seems to enjoy what she's doing - would actually go to the lengths she does and sacrifice what she does to reach her goal. And, despite the overarching theme of negative transformation (which is quite literally prophesied at one point early in the film), the only transformation I saw in Nina was that of a girl who goes from being crazy to being crazier. This is not exactly a new trait of Aronofsky's work, but at least with some of his earlier entries there's a sense that at one point the characters were not the mess we see them as - that even if they don't go anywhere, they at least came from somewhere better to arrive where they are. Nina offers no sense of real transition - just the heavy-handed and obvious "transformation" into the embodiment of the titular creature, which again, is no surprise given how unbalanced the character is from the start.
I would place most of the blame for Nina's lack of depth (and the movie's) on screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin - although for me, Portman's performance still carried too many shades of her Star Wars goody-two-shoes naive princess, combined with her "bad girl" performance from that SNL rap video spoof. Her portrayal of Nina, while good enough, is far from Oscar-worthy in my opinion - especially when her co-star Vincent Cassel slinks in and steals almost every scene right out from under her, playing a snobbish artist type who is equally as brilliant and passionate as he is manipulative, sleazy and even (arguably) abusive. Same goes for Barbara Hershey as Nina's mother, a woman who is bright and loving or dark and oppressive, depending on the minute. If anything, I would say Black Swan features some Award-worthy supporting performances - though let's not add Mila Kunis to that list; she basically plays the same free-spirited femme fatale we saw in Extract last year.
In the end, Black Swan is exactly like Nina herself: a beautiful mess of technical perfection that would reach greatness if only it was more interesting. It's a rare case where I feel I can shower praise on a director for his skill, actors for their performances, and still walk away unimpressed by the movie as a whole. Kind of like the chances of seeing an actual Black Swan: rare, but not impossible.
Black Swan trailer: