By Carolyn Williams
“Black Swan” is a breath of fresh air, and a strong follow-up to Darren Aronofsky’s last film, “The Wrestler.” The film is tense but still compelling and enjoyable, and the plot deals thrillingly with elements of the bizarre without going too far.
The movie revolves around Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a delicate china doll of a ballerina dedicated to her role as a member of the New York City Ballet. Although in her twenties, Nina still lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey), a bitter ex-ballerina who was forced to leave the company after becoming pregnant with Nina. Out of guilt or disinterest, Nina allows herself to be dressed and petted by her mother, whose repetition of her favorite endearment for Nina, “sweet girl,” becomes frightening by the end of the film.
Vincent Cassel is well-cast as Thomas, the dance company’s demanding, licentious director. The plot is set in motion when he announces that the company will be putting on the classic “Swan Lake,” but the new version will be a “visceral” adaptation to differentiate itself from the now stilted original.
Nina, soft-spoken and exactingly fastidious in regards to her own dancing, longs to be cast as the Swan Queen, but the dancer who takes on the overwhelming role must be able to embody both the virginal White Swan and her antithesis, the provocatively sensual Black Swan.
Her casting as the lead comes as a surprise, but the challenge of the role begins to wear on Nina’s fragile psyche. In order to become the Black Swan, Nina is forced to contradict herself personally, and the internal struggle is both horrifying and extremely compelling to watch. Haunted by visions, hallucinations, and an unexplained rash on her back, Nina begins to fall apart. Meanwhile, her understudy Lily (Mila Kunis) flaunts the rules Nina so stringently adheres to, yet seems to be born to play the Black Swan: a fact that torments the fraying Nina. Nina’s compulsion to be technically perfect combined with the pressure from her mother, director and competitor culminates in the climactic opening night of the ballet, on which everyone’s expectations hinge.
“Black Swan” is a psychological thriller. There are several highly-charged, flinch-inducing scenes. A notable example is when Nina tears her cuticle, with stomach-turning results. The graphic and surprising shocks throughout the film are enough to frighten most moviegoers.
The movie’s weakest point is its dialogue. Both Portman and Kunis deliver irreproachable and, in the case of Portman, Oscar-worthy performances. Most of the scenes have little or no dialogue; some of the conversations between characters appear forced and break up the otherwise wonderfully tense atmosphere of the film. Nevertheless, the beautiful Rodarte costumes and an excellent score distract from the movie’s minor script flaws.