Black Swan is centered on the life of virginal dancer Nina, a member of the New York ballet school. Portman plays her near perfectly as she is given the biggest role of her career, to play the lead in Swan Lake. The life she leads is claustrophobic, stuffy, and completely consumed by dancing. Her mother has projected her own hopes and dreams onto her after her own ballet career was cut short after she fell pregnant, resulting in a tendency towards bulimia, scratching at her skin until it bleeds and what starts off a mild psychological disorder.
The narrative of Swan Lake and that of the film soon begin to become more and more entwined. Nina’s innocent persona doesn’t fit with the dual role of the Swan Queen, as she is required to play both the white swan, whom, being graceful, poised and precise, she is naturally more attuned to, and the black swan, the antithesis of the white, ruthless, dark and twisted.
Artistic director Thomas encourages Nina to lose her frigidness, he tells her to look to new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), who is imprecise, tattooed, smokes, drinks and is free, for inspiration. He also advises her to use masturbation to explore sides of herself she is out of touch with.
Soon Nina’s psychological disorder becomes more exaggerated, the audience is unsure if what we are seeing is real or part of her consciousness as Nina’s transformation into the black swan becomes more consuming. This is perhaps where the brilliance of the cinematography is best represented. A grainy filter, muted colours and shaky point of view shot lets us see through Nina’s eyes, reminiscent of a documentary style of film making, resulting in an, at best tense and at worst terrifying atmosphere. Flashes of Nina’s face are almost seamlessly placed onto the screen, leaving us just as confused as to what is real and what is not as Nina must be.
Overall this film is one of those which stays with you long after your first viewing. You never quite know what is real and what is fake. Hallucinations and mirages crop up so frequently you can never quite relax and the effect is a psychological thriller which will have you engrossed from start to finish. If Portman does indeed win the Oscar for best actress, which I suspect she will, it is definitely deserved. If you watch it expecting a light, delicate film about ballet, you’ll feel short changed. If what you’re after is an uncomfortable, chilling psychological thriller, you won’t be disappointed.