Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is an examination of obsession. Obsession for beauty, fame, and above all, perfection. We are shown glimpses of its splendor, only to be consumed by the ugliness and harsh reality that is the world of professional ballet.
Nina Sayers, played by the talented Natalie Portman, is placed in the precarious situation of replacing the company's former star (Winona Ryder), the shining pupil of director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), in the production of Swan Lake. The role is a dual role, in which she must play both the sweet, innocent White Swan as well as her evil twin sister, the Black Swan. Though Nina is best suited for the White Swan, she must find a way to evoke her inner Black Swan.
Though all of the ballerinas in the company would kill for her role, the least jealous one, Lily, played by Mila Kunis in a breakthrough performance, has become Nina's biggest rival, catching the eye of Thomas. Still, Nina is set on perfecting the role.
It is Nina's obsession for perfection, a constant theme through the film, that is the root of her troubles. This obsession is passed down from her mother, played brilliantly by Barbara Hershey. She too was a ballerina but gave up her career to support Nina, living vicariously through her daughter. Her obsession for dance is shared by all dancers, really, but Nina takes it a step further, causing it to physically and mentally affect her.
The pain and suffering that Nina's goes through takes its toll early on in the film. She sees herself on the faces of strangers, the scratching and itching she inflicts on her back, yet we never see, and the scrapes and cuts that appear out of thin air, as if something inside of her is ready to burst out. As the film goes on, it becomes more clear that her thoughts and hallucinations are blending with her reality to the point where she can't distinguish the two from one another.
Here's where Aronofsky's obsession/passion for film-making takes over. He too seeks perfection in his work, finding the right camera angles, the right tempo, and the right composition. This film has some of his best camera work to date, thanks to the cinematography of Matthew Libatique, whose fluid camera movements are the glue that hold the film together.
Aronofsky is a director who tries to make his shots look as beautiful as they can be, while not blowing you away with CGI and special effects. The Fountain, though not a perfect movie by any means, had some truly outstanding photography (also partnered with Libatique) that wasn't heavy on the artificial special effects. Here he makes a similar attempt to create an incredibly realistic picture. It helps that both Portman and Kunis dedicated months and months of training and dieting to get the appropriate look for the film. That hard work paid off for sure.
Without those two ladies the film would be lost. Having seen the film I can't see another actress in either role. They were perfectly cast. Portman, though not afraid to show some skin for the camera in a film like Closer (and even Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones), acts and appears so fragile and innocent in many of her roles. Kunis on the other hand, hearkening back to her days on "That 70s Show" has always been the pretty girl with a bit of attitude. Her eyes are almost hypnotic. These two women play perfectly off of each other, contrasting like the two swans in the ballet. I'm sure the talk of the movie will be the scene in Nina's bedroom (see it for yourself), but I enjoyed their night on the town leading up to the bedroom scene more. We see Lilly's influence and persuasiveness affect Nina tremendously.
Their performances are backed by a tight story. It's takes us places that we least expect to go, showing us beautiful and disturbing images that you would not expect from a movie about ballerinas, making Black Swan one of the more original psychological thrillers in the past decade. Like every good thriller, there needs to be good music, too. Enter Clint Mansell, whose score for Aronofsky's second film Requiem for a Dream has become one of the more beloved scores of all time. I am particularly fond of his work for Moon, but Requiem is just as good if not better. Here we have a great blend of classical and original pieces.
These pieces come together to create a portrait of a dancer whose demeanor gets in the way of her heart's yearning for success. When her dreams start slipping, her mind does the same. Passion leads to obsession. Obsession leads to transformation. The White Swan becomes the Black Swan, and she must pay the price.