The film tells the story of Nina Sayers, a ballerina whose dream is to play the lead role in her ballet’s production of Swan Lake—a dual role which includes both the innocent white swan, and the seductive, evil black swan. If this movie were a traditional success story, no doubt Nina would have to learn to overcome her self-doubt or some personal handicap in order to achieve success, and the movie would end with her smiling at her adoring mother and encouraging mentor. Instead, Black Swan takes a darker path. Already anxious and timid by temperament, Nina is slowly driven towards madness by the pressures of her role as she desperately tries to tap into her darker side in order to properly portray the part of the black swan.
Black Swan is, in essence, an exceptionally-done character study. The screenwriters have created a truly complex and fascinating protagonist, a young woman tortured by perfectionism, fears of ending up like her mother, and a good deal of sexual repression. She seems not to want the fame of the black swan role, but need it. Her ambition is not driven by the love of success, but rather a preoccupation with failure. Natalie Portman plays this role to perfection by underplaying it. She delivers almost all her lines in the same subdued whimper. Just by looking at her, we get a sensation of a person who is constantly suffering. Even when she smiles it looks as though someone just broke her foot with a hammer. Playing a character who is reticent and withdrawn, Portman is forced to give a lot of information through facial expressions and body language, and she pulls this difficult task off well.
Most of the side characters are rather one-dimensional, and a few are clichéd. Most are decidedly unsympathetic. We have the predatory, arrogant play director, the uncompassionate co-workers, the jealous and angry burned out former star. But this one dimensionality works because the story is told from Nina’s perspective. Since Nina is an isolated and self-absorbed person who sees others primarily as obstacles in the way of her success, it makes sense that she should see everyone as hostile and unsympathetic.
Right from the start, Black Swan sucks the viewer into Nina’s world. As we watch her dance for the first time, the camera swoops in and out as though it were some sort of predatory bird trying to eat her. The movie uses close-ups and dizzying camera movements to build a sense of claustrophobia and peril. At times, the techniques do become a little-over-the-top. The sound-effect of feathers rustling, used whenever Nina hallucinates that she is transforming into the Black Swan (which, as you may have guessed, she does often), begins to lose its creepiness after it is heard for the thirtieth time. There are a few moments when Black Swan throws subtlety out the window, the most egregious being in a hallucination where a woman screams at Nina “you’re not perfect!” before stabbing herself repeatedly in the face. That Nina was afraid of not being perfect had already been made well clear by that point. Having a crazy woman with a knife scream it at us was just unnecessary.
All nitpicking aside, though, Black Swan is a truly well-made film that works on several levels. Those looking to be scared and traumatized will find plenty of thrills. The movie doesn’t skimp on the gore, and manages to turn even such basic activities as clipping one’s nails or taking a bath into fuel for the worst of nightmares. Those looking for a complex psychological thriller will find a lot to analyze. Black Swan is open to interpretation. Is the whole movie a parable about Jungian shadow theory? Is it a study of how pressure can induce psychosis? Is it perhaps a story about repressed homosexuality? It is about all of those things, and yet still manages to remain character driven and focused on the story it is trying to tell. If that story does end pretty predictably, it’s understandable. After all, Black Swan isn’t really about the ending, it’s about exploring how we get there.