“I had the craziest dream last night about a girl who’s turned into a swan.  But her prince falls for the wrong girl, and she kills herself.” – Nina, Black Swan

The tale of Black Swan, when stripped down to its bare essence, is one that is as old as time.  It tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina desperate for success and glory on the stage.  There is, as usual, the threatening, sensual competitor in Lily (Mila Kunis), who presents herself as a formidable antagonist.  There is, as expected, the stern, artistic director in the form of Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) who dominates and induces Nina to psychological distress.  There is, also, the ambitious former ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey) who smothers Nina with her compulsive urge to control.  However, it is not the story that contributes the success of the film; rather, it is the style of execution and the method of delivery that makes it one of the most stimulating psychological thrillers of the decade.

For those who expect Black Swan to deliver scares around every lurking corner to induce glass-shattering screams, do not go to see the movie.  For those who assume Black Swan to only be an immaculate presentation of class, grace, and elegance usually associated with ballet, do not go to see the movie.  For those who fancy the mere, ordinary arthouse production, do not go to see the movie. 

For Black Swan is certainly quite the extraordinary psychological thriller, and arguably one of Darren Aronofsky’s best.  It exhibits innocence and grace, and at the same time displays, to quote from the film, things that are both “visceral and rare”.  Those who are familiar with Aronofsky would recall his singular style of filmmaking in his works such as Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Pi, and The Wrestler.  Indeed, much of Aronofsky’s trademark themes and motifs that could be observed in his previous films made appearances in numerous forms of variation in Black Swan; however, instead of ending up with a film reminiscient of a botched-up ball gown, Aronofsky manages to seamlessly integrate and interweave the various distinctive elements in his past creations to produce one of the most exhilirating films within the genre.

There are moments of violence in the film that would make Tarantino proud, and yet the usual heart-pumping adrenaline that one gets from blood, guts, and gory is absent; rather, one is filled with the sort of cringing sensation one develops from fingernails scratching on a chalkboard.   The thrill does not overtly dominate and instead comes up in subtle pulses.  Horror and fear is instigated through the fascinatingly grotesque mutation of Nina (Natalie Portman), the protagonist, as she descends, as a ballerina, from the innocent into the sinister.  Combined with the eloquent artistic presentation of the process, the fusion between beauty and monstrosity in the film creates, in essence, the ideal contrast.  Aronofsky’s execution, if critiqued in detail, still has minor flaws; there were a few fleeting horror movie cliches, but they do not affect or impede the flow and quality of the film as a whole.  There were scattered moments of cheeky humor, but even those scenes were met with nervous, unsettling laughter by the audience in the theatre.  With the attention of detail to the costumes and music, the powerful narration, and the range of emotions in which Black Swan is able to generate, I was reminded of Carlos Saura’s famous masterpiece Tango, in which the performance of art in the form of dancing was used, too, as the main mode of narration.

It must also be noted here that Natalie Portman’s performance was absolutely breathtaking, and she is quite literally the reason to the tremendous success of the film.  The supporting cast of Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel served their purposes and their acting was decent, but it was the performance of Natalie Portman that elevated the film from the ordinary to the level of serious Academy Award contention.  Her caliber when it comes to acting clearly shines through in the movie, and her portayal of Nina was impeccable.  The only other recent movie that comes to mind where the lead actor/actress basically serves as the motor in driving the entire film is Crazy Heart, in which the outstanding performance of Jeff Bridges eventually won him an Academy Award for Best Actor.  Natalie Portman might, too, be very well on her way towards her second Academy Award nomination with her role as Nina in Black Swan.

A good film does not necessarily have to both instruct and pleasure.  Aronofsky’s Black Swan would not leave its audience with a sense of enlightenment and knowledge; its merits are based, rather, on its capacity to fully engage the audience in the delightfully disturbing tension between primeval thrill and artistic elegance.  With shades of Tarantino, Scorsese, and Saura, combined with the own fingerprints of Aronofsky himself, it certainly comes as no surprise that the film, when first screened at the 67th Venice Film Festival, received the “longest standing ovation” of the event.  As critics weighed in with their opinions, reviews also prove to be largely positive, which is further acknowledgement and recognition to the quality of the film.

Black Swan is currently on limited release, and will be on wide release by December 22.  For those who wish to view the film earlier, the closest theatre near UCLA with a showing of Black Swan is The Landmark (10850 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles).  Tickets are available online.  The trailer could be viewed here.