BLACK SWAN might just be Darren Aronofsky's best film. He's clearly one of the most talented directors working today and this intense and unnerving film is proof of that. His second feature, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, burst onto the scene a decade ago and won him a great deal of fanfare for its harsh depiction of drug addiction and the use of a tremendous amount of clever, highly visual editing. After this came THE FOUNTAIN, in which he failed to build on the momentum REQUIEM gave him despite it being a pretty good, albeit less-accessible film. Aronofsky returned to glory with THE WRESTLER a couple years back and it is this film that seems to have started the director on an even better path than REQUIEM did ten years ago. THE WRESTLER was a very personal film, simpler in appearance than his previous work, that produced emotion and feeling in a much more subtle way. BLACK SWAN follows this model. It's an intensely complicated film that is propelled forward by the experiences (some of them real, some of them not) of Portman's character, Nina Sayers. At a glance, BLACK SWAN isn't as flashy as REQUIEM or THE FOUNTAIN, but it's Aronofsky's most ambitious film to day and one of the year's best.
Despite my supreme confidence in the film's director, it wouldn't work without Natalie Portman in the lead. The plot relies on the growing emotional and mental instability of her character and she is able to deliver that in incremental doses. Even though I know very little about ballet, I know that it is a highly competitive, intensely demanding vocation. The pressure that the "Swan Lake" production exerts on Nina is entirely believable and so are her actions, even though they might seem a tad melodramatic. Portman is perpetually wide-eyed and ill at-ease throughout the film (almost irritatingly so) and that translates to the viewer. I can honestly say that there are few movies that had me as anxious as this one did and for nearly the entire run time. The moments of self-mutilation are relatively tame, but visceral as if Aronofsky specifically chose the most cringe-inducing of minor injuries for Nina to inflict on herself. Damage to fingers, including the longest hangnail you'll ever see, along with obsessive scratching of raw skin are just so awful to behold and fitting for a character struggling to hold herself together.
What I also liked about Nina's mental state in this film is that it doesn't begin with her casting as The Swan Queen, as if she's just crumbling under the pressure of a big part. She is damaged goods from the very beginning. Her relationship with her mother (Barbara Hershey in an Oscar-worthy performance) is unnatural and another fascinating aspect to the film. It is this environment of coddling, over-protection and desperation that has helped created the unstable young woman we see fall apart as the film progresses.
Mila Kunis as Lily, Nina's perceived rival, is the perfect compliment to Portman. Where Nina is fragile and wide-eyed, Lily is steely-eyed and confident. Nina is reserved and prudish, while Lily is outgoing and sexy. They clash so beautifully in all their scenes together, culminating in a drug-fueled night out at a club meant to help Nina blow off some steam. The club scenes are red and pulsating and frenetic and are appropriately capped off by a rather brazen and much talked-about embrace between the two, the aftermath of which might just be the point at which we see where this film is headed.
Aronofsky captures the ballet performances beautifully, following the movement of the dancers in a way that is neither dizzying or disorienting. He likes to get inside the action (in all aspects of the film) more than most director's do. BLACK SWAN wasn't captured from beyond by a distant lens, but by a director inserting himself among the fray (also done effectively in THE WRESTLER).
BLACK SWAN is indeed a great film for what appears on screen, but I would be doing Clint Mansell a disservice by not mentioning his lofty contribution to the final product. His score, apparently taken from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" but played in reverse and with radical alterations, is eerie as befitting the film's tone, but also graceful to compliment the on stage performances. It's a score to a ballet and a film all in one.
One final note I'd like to make is on Vincent Cassel, who played the director, Thomas Leroy. Cassel is electric in everything he does, but never more so than he is here. Age has given him a presence and regality that was always there, but never at the forefront. His performance here is restrained but powerful; a realistic take on a serious ballet director without all the heartlessness and manipulation that might have rendered his character cliche. I don't see why he hasn't garnered more Best Supporting Actor attention this awards season.