Let me be frank: I expected to enjoy this film, but not to find it breathtaking or obsession-worthy despite the accolades of many, many respected critics. (I was prepared — even hopeful — that I’d be surprised. I wasn’t.) Is it still worth watching? Absolutely.
Black Swan has a core of intelligence and wit, but the finished product is — perhaps intentionally — a bit crude, both psychologically and narratively. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a tightly controlled, deeply repressed soloist in a prominent ballet company who longs to play the dual leads in “Swan Lake”… but to do so, she must transcend mere technical perfection and open herself to passion and, perhaps, to an inner darkness.
For experienced viewers of psychological suspense films, the surprises in this film are momentary: jumps and startles rather than character-driven revelations. The biggest difference between Black Swan and more generic films of its ilk springs from director Darren Aronofsky’s gift for portraying jarring physicality. The images of Natalie Portman’s too-delicate ballerina wincing and smothering her pain brought little gasps of dismay to my throat, and I jumped at the little reveals even when they felt obviously manipulative.
Unlike so much of Aronofsky’s transgressive work (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), Black Swan walks us step-by-step through some pretty familiar psychological-suspense themes: maternal oppression and conflict, professional rivalry turning into personal vendettas, identity crisis, repressed sexuality bursting out unbidden, the shifting lines between reality and fantasy.
Aronofsky even gives us a little metatextual goose suggesting that his coloring-inside-the-lines approach may be intentional. Early in the film, the ballet director, Thomas, gives a speech about the upcoming production of "Swan Lake" that foreshadows the events we're about to see played out, starting with "“We all know the story… Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan" and ending with "Done to death I know, but not like this. We strip it down, make it visceral and real."
Over the next few weeks, Thomas creates a "Swan Lake" with some edgy elements that nonetheless looks strikingly familiar and traditional, as much a comfortable genre piece as Aronofsky's Black Swan turns out to be. It plays with longstanding melodramatic tropes of female competition and artistic hysteria and also toys knowingly with allusions, direct or oblique, to previous films covering similar territory, most strikingly The Red Shoes, Repulsion, Persona, Perfect Blue, and a whole handful of De Palma flicks. It’s a big splashy B-movie, half melodrama, half horror, all crafted with Aronofsky’s lavish attention and intention.