(Please be advised that there is no possible way of discussing this film without revealing spoilers. Consider the entire post one prolonged spoiler.)
I will never again watch Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake without wondering whether the ballerina playing the Swan Queen is certifiably insane. I have Natalie Portman and her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan (2010) to thank for this. Greatly aided by the deft direction of Darren Aronofsky and an outstanding production design, Portman’s complete metamorphosis into a gifted but mentally unstable ballerina is phenomenal.
Portman plays Nina Sayers, a sexually repressed ballerina in what I can only assume is supposed to be a company modeled on the New York City Ballet. When the company’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), chooses Nina to replace his former muse, Beth (Winona Ryder in an inspired but brief role), and play the Swan Queen in the season’s opening ballet, Nina believes all of her dreams have come true. Technically precise and incapable of coming off as anything but innocent, Nina makes a wonderful White Swan. The problem is that self-doubt begins to creep in when Thomas constantly berates her for her inability to lose her frigidness and dance with the passion that is required for the Black Swan. Already suffering from mild hallucinations, the pressure to meet Thomas’ expectations and to fight off a would-be competitor in Lily (Mila Kunis), causes Nina to rapidly descend into a world of mental instability.
Okay, I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to watch this film twice before I got it (at least, I think I did). Sometimes psychological thrillers need a second look—think the Sixth Sense (1999)—and when I wasn’t fully convinced that Nina and Lily were two separate people I had to re-watch it. Think about it: Nina is almost always dressed in white, while Lily is always in black. Then you have Lily’s creepy winged tattoo; plus, there is that now infamous lesbian love scene that didn’t really happen. Oh, and let’s not forget the would-be dressing room catfight where Nina stabs Lily with a shard of broken mirror glass. Yes, I had a “WTF” moment when after delivering a scintillating Black Swan Pas de Deux Nina is congratulated by Lily. This was my reaction: 1) If she was real and Nina stabbed her shouldn’t she be dead? 2) If she’s alive and unharmed, who got stabbed? If you were like me, you “got it” when Nina pulls that shard out of her own stomach. But then you start wondering how she danced with it in her and then how she continued to dance the Coda after she pulled it out. Hence, why you might watch it again. This uncertainty is why I can’t convince myself this is an extremely good film.
However, I am convinced that Portman deserved her Academy Award for Best Actress (although, the competition that year was lacking). No doubt having a degree in psychology from Harvard University helped Portman wrap her mind around her mentally unstable character. She never seems to overplay just how deranged Nina is, which is one of the reasons her performance is so visceral. Still, she had to do more than understand her character’s motivations for this demanding part. She spent over a year physically preparing for the role by studying ballet with Mary Helen Bowers and Benjamin Millepied (whom she later married) and she transformed her body into that of a ballerina’s. Portman has said that at one point during filming she felt as though she might die from exhaustion. While she may have been tired off the set, her complete embodiment of Nina is anything but tired. I haven’t seen her give such a raw performance since Closer (2004).
The overall production is also memorable. Costume designer Amy Westcott (with occasional help from Rodarte) does a splendid job of outfitting an entire ballet company. The Black Swan costume in particular is a standout design, but her choices of clothing for scenes between Nina and Lily are also creatively crafted. I especially liked the dresses she designed for them to wear to the benefit party.
The other shining element of Black Swan is Clint Mansell’s score. Not just anyone could take a canonical piece of music like Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and completely rip it apart and then reshape it into their own vision, but Mansell did. Known primarily for his work on Requiem for a Dream (2000), Mansell re-recorded his version of Swan Lake with an 80-piece orchestra and totally revamped a timeless classic. It is unfortunate that his score was not eligible for the Academy Awards, because he truly deserved to be recognized. His music expertly sets the tone throughout the entire film.
While Nina might have found her performance “perfect” (even though she said this as she lay bleeding to death, so how perfect could it really have been?), I can’t go so far as to categorize Black Swan as such. Still, I enjoyed watching Portman’s powerful performance, and I really liked the music and costumes.