Darren Aronofsky has done it again--another harrowing and thought-provoking drama. His previous effort, The Wrestler, has much in common with his latest. Black Swan explores the interplay between madness and art in a competitive context.
Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a ballerina chosen to replace aging Beth (Winona Ryder) as star of the company, playing the lead in Swan Lake. Director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) sees her as a natural White Swan, but she must also play the Black Swan, requiring an abandon he is doubtful that she can possess. Mila Kunis plays Lily, whom Nina sees as her rival but also as someone whose comparative worldliness intrigues her. Barbara Hershey has a memorable turn as Nina's rather suffocating, ex-ballerina mother.
Viewers are made to question how much is reality versus fantasy as Nina's delusions are played out onscreen. I wondered whether or not Lily was completely made up by Nina, given how many of the delusions are wrapped up with her. Some criticism of the film has centered around the horror movie tactics that pick up in the second half of the movie, but that is when Nina's psychological deteroriation increases in severity and therefore make sense. Set against the beauty of the Swan Lake production, Nina's mental breakdown is the more disturbing. For all the figures who are causing her turmoil in her life, Nina is her own worst foe.
The film is not so much about the world of ballet as a broader look at the parallel between art and madness and about delving too far into what one cannot handle. In fact, in a case of life imitating art, the role was nearly too intense for Portman: "There were some nights that I thought I literally was going to die," she said. "It was the first time I understood how you could get so wrapped up in a role that it could sort of take you down." Black Swan is a riveting look at an artist's breakdown, but the message of the movie seems to be a cautionary one rather than a complete romanticization. The violence contained in the film is therefore not gratuitous. The movie may be hard for some to take, but it is well done.