Every bit of critical rhetoric except the kitchen sink has been thrown at Black Swan. Regardless of a polarized critical consensus, the film delivers a hypnotic requiem through the funhouse mirror-like world of a ballerina on the verge of perfection and destruction. (Even if it has been accused of doing so through recycled tropes of melodrama, horror, and psychological thriller genres.)
Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to the menacing shadows that stalk human nature, shadows whose silhouettes grow to grotesque, haunting proportions in the setting sun of reconciliation with our weaknesses. In the Gothic dungeons where skeletons of disassociated parts of ourselves lurk, these dark, rejected doppelgängers threaten to engulf our sanity like great whites who detect a trace of blood and vulnerability, then circle in for the kill.
Such can be said for the protagonists in three of Aronofsky's films. They share a common leitmotif of nearly being swallowed whole in pursuit of the nearly unattainable, of maniacal obsession with the realization of their dreams: Mickey Rourke's character in The Wrestler, the four lead harrowing roles in Requiem for a Dream, and Natalie Portman's frighteningly exquisite portrayal of Nina, a gifted ballerina among a Lincoln Center company, selected to dance the lead role of Swan Queen in a lurid interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.
What is brilliant about Black Swan's twisted, creepy narrative and cinematic manipulations to pull it off is the elegant way the audience follows Nina along a slow and increasingly pronounced descent into psychosis. Employing an excellent device in filmmaking grammar, the director paints a bad-trip art house paranoia through a fundamentally telling use of camera angles, by consistently positioning the lens directly behind Nina. This delivers that Hitchcockian or Stephen King-esque terror of being followed by an unseen villain, perpetually stalking the protagonist as if literally breathing down her neck without her awareness. However, allusions to this dark shadow, to this menacing evil, punctuate the story.
Like most protagonists in a psychological thriller, suspense, or horror flick, the character most at risk becomes increasingly aware of her peril. In Nina's case, foreshadowing references to a nightmare slowly enveloping her reality are hallucinatory gooseflesh ripples that pierce Nina's body, in strobe-lit flashes, with acoustic accompaniments of spine-chilling Voldemort-meets-Darth Vader hisses. These hauntingly visceral flourishes escalate in pitch until Nina's moment of truth. Camerawork and surreal stage-setting characterized by tacit restraint burst the levy and the audience finally feasts on Nina's diabolical transformation into a full embodiment of the lustfully seductive, Kafkaesque black swan. Nina must summon the miasmic wrath that her delicate, alabaster purism, and perfectionistic dedication to controlled technique choke on. She wrestles with the drum-tight tension between both roles she has been selected to play. She must navigate beyond her comfort zone - the virtuosity of executing graceful majesty of the white swan - to anthropomorphize the gruesome alter-ego of the primal, id-dictated black swan.
Sure it can be argued that there are bathetic moments (pat lines like "The only one standing in your way is you"). Or overblown pathos, like the hyped-up timbre of pretension and bombast that saturate the institution of ballet and the choice for the film to be set in one of the preeminent landscapes of the art form, Lincoln Center in New York City. Also, the production is a newly stylized interpretation of arguably the most well-known ballet (next to The Nutcracker), "Swan Lake." And all the ballerinas are as stereotypically cutthroat and competitive as the industry is accused of boasting. But "Black Swan" manages to evade stepping explicitly into any of these overdone trappings, because each element is self-consciously explored for what it is and the film seems to recognize and accept the bravado in which it is ensconced, without apologizing. Moreover, ballet dancers can be as backstabbing and vindictive as Aronofsky depicts, and, as one clever critique put it (Jett Loe http://thefilmtalk.com/movie-review-podcast/), "No one was hurt at the explosion of the cliché factory." Sarcasm aside, the cliché of heroine being haunted by her dark shadow, in a world blurring the line between delusion and reality, remains fair game when approached with fresh energy.
The director admits to being heavily inspired by Dostoyevsky's The Double, where a clerk begins to enter lunacy after seeing someone who looks exactly like him but possessed of the appealing traits his timid self lacks. This theme applies to Nina's character arc, yet the twisted juxtaposition is mesmerizingly delivered. The way in which her surpassing beauty is star-crossed with a satanic pact whereby her freedom cannot be attained without a plummet into self-destruction is worthy of the Oscar nomination for Best Picture it received. Portman's masterpiece of both acting and ballet dancing is likewise deserving of her recognition of Best Actress at the Academy Awards.
Additional kudos must go out to Barbara Hershey who puts in a 5 star, Carrie-reminiscent performance as Nina's pathologically oppressive and perfectionistic mother. There could not have been more fitting casting of the face-lifted(ly fake-looking), aging Hershey, to mirror the porcelain-like doll she has jailed Nina into embodying. Nina is as trapped as the miniature ballerina figurine who twirls an endless pirouette in the center of the music box on her bedside table. This music box was once a melody of refuge and fantasy as a child, the repository of her pointe-perfect dreams. As the film evolves, the eerie tinkle of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" now wafts evanescently into the suffocating air as a dirge-like tolling of the inexorable fusion of perfection and destruction.