Get ready for 108 minutes of pure, raw anxiety.
Right from the start we are hurled into the life of dedicated yet delicate New York ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). She lives with her overbearing, equally anxious mother (Barbara Hershey) and appears to have no life outside of the ballet studio. From start to finish, we remain in her intense world and watch as she descends into madness.
Nina lands the role of her dreams, as the Swan Queen in a new version of Swan Lake that is being directed by the somewhat sleazy Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). In this challenging role, she must embody both the white swan and its evil twin, the black swan. Although she is ideal as the virtuous white swan, she struggles to find within her the ability to play the part of its doppelgänger. Leroy slyly suggests that if she goes home and touches herself this may help her to relax. Did I mention he was somewhat sleazy?
Typically, another dancer in the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), is perfect to play the black swan. Sexy, passionate and tattooed, she is everything that Nina is not and Nina becomes obsessed with her, believing that she is out to steal the lead role.
The first half of the film moves quite slowly, emphasizing the mundane boredom and loneliness of Nina’s life. As Nina slowly loses her mind in trying to find her dark side, Aronofsky plays with the audience, challenging us to question where reality ends and fantasy begins. As we are seeing the story unfold through Nina’s eyes, it becomes impossible to know what is happening for real and what are Nina’s paranoid delusions.
Black Swan is a claustrophobic thriller about obsession and fear. Fear of sex and passion, fear of losing control and fear of imperfection. If the film’s constant feeling of biting anxiety isn’t enough, there are plenty of moments that will make for an extremely uncomfortable audience. There is frequent body mutilation, skin picking and bloody toes. Two such scenes involve Nina slowly peeling skin off of her fingers and Winona Ryder (as jaded ballet dancer Beth) jabbing a nail file into her cheeks. There is also a particularly intense masturbation scene that you definitely wouldn’t want to watch with your mother. You will be gripping your seat while also cringing into your popcorn throughout this movie.
So is it worth the hype? Portman is certainly brilliant, and the film’s success is ultimately down to her performance. The film itself isn’t particularly scary, instead it is seriously heavy viewing and not recommended for the fragile or squeamish. The melodrama, blood and eroticism of this overwhelming film are certainly intoxicating, but won’t be for everyone.
I can’t say that I’ll be rushing back for a second viewing, and it isn’t quite as captivating as Requiem for a Dream, but Black Swan has got ‘Oscar winner’ written all over it.