To begin with, let me state that I am decidedly ambivalent about films that are open to interpretation. The line between an intelligent film that raises questions in the viewer’s mind and an overly metaphorical exercise in style that does not engage the viewer is pretty thin. Besides which, the more the ground shifts under my feet, the more suspicious I am of the filmmaker’s own grasp of the story he is telling. Rashomon is an obvious exception — the point Kurosawa was making was that nobody could really know.
Having said that, Black Swan is as good an exercise in this particular sub-genre as any I have seen. I am still not sure what happened, and I suspect this situation will not improve much upon repeated viewing. However, in terms of evoking an emotional response, it is just about perfect.
Instead of attempting to unravel the plot itself, let me simply state the premise: Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina who is auditioning for the part of the Swan Queen in a performance of Swan Lake. This is a challenging role, because it involves playing two characters who are completely opposed to each other. Her technical perfection makes her the obvious choice for the virginal white swan, but playing the more “imperfect”, seductive black swan odes not come easily. The reason why she can play the white swan better is obvious from her home life: her eerily co-dependent relationship with her mother (Barbara Hershey), her bedroom decorated in baby pink and an army of stuffed toys and the apparent lack of anything resembling a life outside work.
The one who can play the black swan perfectly happens to be Lily (Mila Kunis), a free-spirited new addition to the ballet company. To Nina, who is so monomaniacal about her dancing as to be practically asexual, Lily presents a challenger and role model in equal parts. Add to this mix a ballet director (Voncent Cassel) whose predatory instincts seem like unconventional coaching methods at times — is he trying to loosen Nina up for the part, or simply for himself? Probably a bit of both, we suspect.
Now, this is, in itself, not a complicated premise, except that Nina is slowly losing her grip on reality while all this is happening. And since the story is told from Nina’s point of view, there is nothing objective about the narration. Scenes constantly contradict each other, not just in their depiction of reality, but also in the way she perceives the characters, especially Lily. In a sense, Nina’s journey mirrors the play itself: the black and white swans within her battle each other while trying to attain their goal — the perfect performance.
Although the plot has cut itself loose from its moorings, our connection with Nina’s character remains firm. This is as much a credit to the writing (Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin) as to the performances. Portman is absolutely fantastic in the lead role and will probably take home most of the acting honours this year. To depict an inexorable descent into madness is hard enough as it is, but to do it when the story is told through the eyes of the person going mad is nigh impossible. Portman never severs the link with the audience throughout this journey. Equally commendable is Kunis’ performance as Lily. Since we see Lily as Portman sees her, which is constantly changing, she has to play more than one character. It is to her credit that she pulls this off perfectly. Cassel and Hershey deliver pitch perfect performances. Winona Ryder shines in a brief cameo.
The last time Darren Arofonsky got behind the camera, he was responsible for the rebirth of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. At the Independent Spirit Awards, Rourke spoke of how demanding a director Arofonsky was, both physically and emotionally, but that the rewards outweighed the challenges. Of the actors aspiring to work with Arofonsky but worried about the challenge, he said something on the lines of: “If they can’t bring it, f*** them.”
The cast of Black Swan ought to get t-shirts made that say, “We brought it.”