Oh dear, I'm not really sure what to say about this film. It's big and weird and a run through a well-worn story, for a reason I'm not quite sure is clear to me. My movie buddy Howard loved it, mostly because it is so strictly formal: it tells you the story it's going to tell, then it tells it, the end. And there are visions and sudden scares and drug trips and crazy sex and sudden stabbings to keep you entertained along the way.
We open inside Natalie Portman as Nina's dream, where she is dancing the part of the white swan in Swan Lake, but is attacked by the nasty black prince [or something], played by Vincent Cassel, who will play her psychologically-abusive director. She wakes up and says hi to her mother, has a sensible breakfast, then off to rehearsals.
She's a dancer at Lincoln Center in New York. Cassel as Thomas comes in to the company and tells the story of Swan Lake, which is also the story of the move we're about to see: There's the lovely white swan, who attracts the prince, but he gets wooed away by the black swan, who swallows while the white swan doesn't--symbolically, of course--and the prince goes for her. So the white swan kills herself. The end. You get a sense of the level of this movie when you see a shot of Thomas' image split in two by a mirror crack as he says that he needs a dancer that can embody both the black and white swan. Thomas demonstrates his methods of messing with minds by going around tapping dancers as though they've been selected--then telling them they're the ones rejected. Nina is selected.
Nina comes to his office to ask for the part, but he says she's all discipline and perfection but no passion, and he doesn't think she can reach into the darkness inside her in order to embody the black swan. Then he kisses her, and she bites him--and she gets the part.
Wondering if mom is psychologically unstable and manipulative? Wonder no longer, as she buys Nina a gargantuan pink cake with ballerinas all over it in order to celebrate, then says "Fine! Then it's garbage!" and threatens to throw the whole thing in the trash when Nina--who ate a grapefruit for breakfast and must preserve her figure--says she can't eat a large piece. You'll also notice that mom's room is covered with drawings and paintings of Nina, and is quite free with coming into Nina's room.
So then you're like: "Oh I get it, she can't let herself experience the darkness it would take to unleash the black swan, because if she did it would unleash all her rage at her mother." Which is fine, but... should we be getting that at 20 minutes in? What else does the film have to show us since we already know the whole story we're going to see and at least one thematic aspect?
So Nina is moved into the dressing room of the former star ballerina, who has recently been cast off and is none too happy about it. And she's getting this rash on her back, which we know is her turning into a literal bird, but which they assume is her compulsively scratching herself, as she apparently used to do. Thomas continues being psychologically manipulative and borderline abusive. Her mom continues to be intrusive and creepily close.
Through all this, Mila Kunis of That 70s Show and Santa with Muscles is another ballerina, much more sensual and earthy, and she befriends Nina, although we're never quite sure if she's just being herself or is scheming to take Nina's part. This is the one aspect of the film that is successfully left fairly ambiguous, and thus becomes one of the better things about the whole movie.
So with all its ideas spewed out in the first 30 minutes, all the movie has left to do is enact them at increasing levels of intensity. Nina's going crazy, and then goes a little crazier! And then just a bit CRAZIER! And then CRAZIER STILL! The movie winds up exactly as they told you it would at the start, and there you are, thanks so much for coming.
It was fine, it certainly never got boring. It also never got totally involving. Portman is excellent in the role, but the role is largely a symbol, and while she does a great job of bringing her to life, one is always aware that she is mostly a screenwriter's creation. This could pretty much be said of all the actors, save Kunis. Hershey is great, looks like Portman and can convey that devouring mom thing brilliantly, but we're too aware of her function in the story to get involved with her as a real character. The only one who seemed like a real character is Kunis, who is somehow so wild and unpredictable she transcends the fact that her role is just a construction.
But as I said, one is more involved with it as a creation than one gets involved with it as a story with characters, and since it starts at 9 and gradually cranks it to 12, you see pretty much everything its got within the first 30 minutes.
There are many classics this movie is noted as drawing on, such as The Red Shoes and Repulsion and Carrie, but it just fails to spark to life the way any of those movies did. This is a result of aiming to be nothing BUT a repetition of films that have already come before, and also its lack of truly resonant images. Even now, the hands reaching in through walls in Repulsion are creepy, and Sissy Spacek covered in blood against a wall of fire is an inherently powerful image. But here--what? There are a bunch of shockers, maybe there are too many for any of them to stand out, but I can't think of one image here that really affected me. It was all "Oh, now he's doing that. Oh I see, now he's playing on that." You could say that Aronofsky could just trust his material, but he doesn't stick closely to it. We never sense Nina falling in love with Thomas the director, so when she sees him with her rival at the end, no resonance there. We're meant to believe that Nina's true love is the ideal of perfection, but throughout the rest of the movie she seems fairly comfortable with learning slowly and making mistakes. I just don't get it.
Which is why I think the movie is getting attention from the people it is is that it puts its form and technique on display and then follows them through. That's what Howard admired: It told you the story it was going to tell, then it told it. I've read other glowing reviews that concentrated mainly on its technique and the many formal little tricks and inventions. Great. So put it on a shelf and look at it. As a story one could get into, it leaves a bit more to be desired and never quite comes to life.
If you want. Many people seem to like it.