There's a theme hinted at during Black Swan, whispered quietly against backdrops both spartan and despair, which seems to imply that lightness of being comes from the darkness of existence, which was borne from previously contextual lightness. This is a big concept to grapple with, this endless cycle of good and evil, but you'll have plenty of time to ponder it as the plot of Black Swan is left purposefully threadbare. Everything is faded or muted color, everything is creepy, and director Darren Aronofsky has made this a far less accessible piece of cinema than his previous film, The Wrestler. Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing; his iconic work The Fountain is at once inscrutable and beautiful, but Black Swan seems to nibble around the edges of greatness without ever taking a full bite.
Natalie Portman, as Nina, is a ballet dancer seeking out the prestigious part of Swan Queen in Swan Lake. The director of the ballet (Vincent Cassel) is demanding and demeaning, as most clever tyrants are. He's ushering his previous protege (Winona Ryder) out the door, all to make room for a new and powerful force that might end up being Mila Kunis. Portman's talents within the plot construct are the embodiment of innocence and light. Kunis, however, is all darkness and edge. She's a natural counterpoint to Portman, exemplifying sneering sexuality while Portman's withering innocence undermines her ambition.
So who will get the role? Perhaps Portman. Maybe Kunis. Or Portman. There's vacillation all around as Portman continually shines as the White Swan but suffers in comparison to Kunis' naturally darker Black Swan. The director needs a dancer with range, a performer who can do both parts fluidly. But black and white remain at odds, innocence and cynicism wage continual war.
And then there's the mother figure. Yikes. Barbara Hershey portrays Erica Sayers, who emotionally (and occasionally physically) bullies Portman at every turn. Portman always seeks to please, but there's clearly no pleasing a true sadomasochist. Tension pervades the piece as Portman's decision looms. Will she be able to tap into her darker nature before the role of Swan Queen is gone forever? Is Kunis a rival or a friend? Is Cassel a predator or a genius? And so on. Black Swan is not a work of art based in certainty, nay, this is where strong conclusions go to die, unless you count the constant feeling that something is wrong with each of the protagonists. The one thing that is for certain is that five actors turn in wonderful performances. Natalie Portman's take on searing sensuality fused with desperate depression cries out for attention.
Still, Black Swan is not quite fully cooked. It is almost a horror film. It's almost a romance, and it's almost a drama. The film makes a feint toward the sacrifices needed to attain perfection, but as every character is so flawed, it's tough to place much value there. We've seen the pursuit of perfection personified in films like Searching for Bobby Fischer and The Natural, but in those films the excellence of seeker was placed right up front. Not so here.
Black Swan definitely evokes -- you won't be able to watch without questioning what you know, and why you know it, but it's hard to pinpoint what precisely is effective. Black Swan is four-fifths of a magic trick. With this much dread on-screen you're bound to fill in a few of the gaps with your own emotional coping mechanisms. But it's difficult to judge the strength of the work when it's just barely there, inhabiting some undefined region, largely stuck between black and white.