Performance is a deeply complex art. You can convey so many emotions with a variety of gestures. When performing, the body becomes a tool. We love watching performances whether they be in dance, acting, or some other sort of interpretive genre because they take us to another place. In Darren Aronofsky's (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) new ballet-inspired thriller, the audience is transported to that place via a film that draws you in with each passing moment.
You have the ballerina protagonist, Nina (Natalie Portman), a technically flawless dancer that needs to learn how to bring personality into her performance. She's overachieving, a perfectionist, and constantly struggling with her journey of becoming a mature woman. When the whip-cracking head of her ballet company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), fires the aging dancer Beth (Winona Ryder), he looks for a new younger dancer to star as the Swan Queen in his version of Swan Lake. The premise of Swan Lake is that the gentle White Swan undergoes a metamorphic experience and becomes the cruel Black Swan. Nina has the fragility of the White Swan, but she almost doesn't get the part of the Queen because she doesn't possess the darkness of the Black Swan. Yet when Thomas makes a pass at her, she bites his lip when he forces his mouth onto hers. She goes on to get the part. Matters are only complicated when the sexually charged Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the company. Nina believes she may soon have competition for the role because Lily is able to be both perfect and capable of showing a sense of inner as well as outer beauty. The final piece to the story is Erica (Barbara Hershey), who is Nina's mother and has a push-pull relationship with her daughter. Erica is somewhat controlling, but Nina is really the one who needs to be free of her mother.
The twists-and-turns begin when Nina begins to lose touch with reality. I can't get into any more detail than that because this movie lives off its visual and emotional roller coaster thrills. We are taken into a world of emotional violence that is made up of fantastical obsessions and repulsions. The actors are all at their best. Portman's descent into madness is the most daunting role of her career. Not only does she pull it off, she changes into her role much like the White Swan becomes the Black Swan. Cassel and Kunis both bring out this sexual dynamic giving the film this significant psychosexual tone. Cassel yelling "seduce us, seduce, attack it, attack it" coupled with the nightclub dance/love scenes with Kunis further plunge Portman's character into insanity. Aronofsky takes us to such an emotional extreme that the only film I can think of that did the same was his own film from ten years ago, Requiem for a Dream. This film is also similar to his film from two years ago, The Wrestler. In that film, a man used his body as his profession, wrestling. In fact, the two are companion pieces in a sense. Technically speaking, Aronofsky uses his camera like a character, constantly weaving through the dancers and whatever film stock was used, it gave the visual a grainy look. The special effects, the costumes, the cinematography, the editing, and the score (by the phenomenal Clint Mansell whose work with Aronofsky is always his best) and you have another masterpiece from a master of his art.
This goes with those select few films where when it was over, I felt so emotionally drained that I know I've experienced something special. Nina strived for perfection, and Aronofsky made us understand what that is. This was one of those film viewing experiences that can only be described in one word... transcendent.