In the 2008 drama The Wrestler, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky explored the humanity within the world of professional wrestling, offering a straightforward portrait of a 20-years-past-his-prime wrestler working a low-budget circuit. The story was uncluttered, brutal and moving.
Two years later, Aronofsky gets freaky with ballet in Black Swan, plunging into the mind of a ballerina preparing to star in a new production of Swan Lake. The movie is anything but straightforward, with the point of view leaping around as much as the dancers. Should we take what we see at face value? Are we watching a manifestation of the madness that goes on in the mind of an artist? An otherworldly tale of transformation? All of the above?
There's plenty to wrap your noggin around, plus lots of melodrama. I heard a couple of reviewers opine that some of the dialogue and line deliveries of certain supporting characters is annoyingly hammy – I disagree. My take is that what we're hearing is filtered through the ballerina's mindset – you know, like how everything in The Wonder Years was actually presented from Kevin's adolescent point of view. So when the ballerina's mom crosses into Mommie Dearest Land, we're seeing her through the eyes of the increasingly whacked-out ballerina.
Have I overexplained myself enough?
Anyhow, I ate up the melodrama – it amped up the crazy vibe nicely, which mixed well with the amazing music, the arty visuals and the hallucinations – if that's what they were.
Natalie Portman, giving a career-best performance, plays Nina, a ballerina focused more on being a perfect dancer than a passionate one. The French artistic director, portrayed by Vincent Cassel with a dash of Khan from the original Star Trek TV series, tells Nina he knows she can be successful as the White Swan, but fears she is too constrained to be the darker Black Swan.
When he tries to put the moves on Nina, her response convinces him to give her a shot. Nina prepares, while her understudy Lily (Mila Kunis, just fine in a more adult role than usual) either offers support or plots against the star. Back home, Nina's mom (Barbara Hershey) proves to be a total control freak ... unless that's just the way Nina sees her. Winona Ryder turns up for a few lines, as the dancer cast aside by the artistic director when he decided Nina was his new star.
So there's your story. Light and dark, black and white, peanut butter and chocolate, McGarrett and Danno. If it sounds like I'm being flippant, it's because I want to make it clear that just because Aronofsky maintains a serious tone doesn't mean the movie isn't fun in its own weird way. I've watched Black Swan twice. The first time I was mesmerized by its dark beauty and the whole mind-trip thing. The second time, I relaxed and savored the tasty dramatic excess. Aronofsky has crafted a film that mixes art with schlock without degrading the former or overdoing the latter.