Black Swan is a total nightmare. Before you go getting your feathers ruffled, realize that I mean “nightmare” in the most flattering sense possible. Darren Aronofsky’s ghoulish thriller presents the ballet as a place not where dreams come true but where minds unravel due to an insane amount of pressure to be “perfect.” The film’s visuals are dark and terrifying, presenting a world of nightmarish imagery that equally thrills and disturbs. As passionate as the dancers who inhabit New York City’s ballet scene, Black Swan gets into the mind and manifests there for days, making viewers think long and hard about its story of a ballerina’s slow descent into madness.
Perfectionist, child-like ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has just been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the chance the play the lead in a new, prestigious production of “Swan Lake.” The only problem is that Nina, in her overachieving, perfect student persona, embodies everything about the waifish, fragile White Swan while not encompassing the danger and sexual allure of the villainous Black Swan. When a new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis) enters the company and starts to show the confidence and sex appeal of the Black Swan, Nina begins to fear that her role may not be as secure as she originally thought. The others in Nina’s life don’t make things any easier. The director of the production (Vincent Cassel) takes a liking to Lily and makes unwanted sexual advances towards Nina, Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey) is both smothering and controlling as she terrifies her daughter into wanting to be perfect, and the aging prima ballerina that Nina is destined to replace (Winona Ryder) takes out all of her aggression on Nina as she fades from the spotlight. Nina soon begins to experience horrifying occurrences, like feathers growing out of her back, as the pressure of carrying “Swan Lake” ultimately becomes too much for her to handle. What is real, and what is just a figment of Nina’s imagination? Aronofsky expertly plays with the audience for most of the picture, showcasing a story that is open to multiple modes of interpretation.
Black Swan belongs to Portman. Her performance is a true tour de force, as she brings to life a character who showcases the dark side of being a committed ballerina. Portman rarely smiles, and even when she does it is out of nervousness and discomfort. The character of Nina never experiences true compassion about ballet, only a sense of wanting to achieve perfection at any agonizing cost. There are no upbeat, Center Stage-style dance sequences in Black Swan. In Aronofsky’s film the ballet is not a place where dreams are made; rather, it is a place of maddening precision, devastation, and ruthlessness. As Nina’s life begins to spiral out of control into a whirlwind of blood, drugs, and ominous figures in the night, Aronofsky mounts a sense of dread that grabs hold of viewers and never lets go. The film is shot on shaky, hand-held camera, thus engrossing its audience by allowing them to witness the literal horror of the ballet the same way that Nina experiences it.
One of the best films of the year (if not the best), Black Swan is an engrossing psycho thriller with enough gore, camp, and sleaze to please anyone craving a dark and twisted night at the movies. From the film’s score, which presents a brilliant, nightmarish twist on Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” melodies to the gut wrenching, Mommie Dearest-esque scenes between Nina and her chilling mother, Black Swan is the visual manifestation of a nightmare. Just like a particularly disturbing nightmare, Black Swan may not always make sense, but it is not meant to; its goal, which it achieves beautifully, is to disturb its audience as it engrosses them within the mind of a young woman whose life is spiraling out of control. The desire to be perfect, especially in the excruciatingly competitive world of dance, is a feeling that many individuals have been saddled with, and Black Swan takes a refreshing approach to this topic by showcasing horror rather than inspirational drama. A word of warning: when Winona Ryder’s character picks up a nail file, you may want to cover your eyes.

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