I went to see this movie not knowing what I was in for, but that's probably the only way I would have seen it anyway: it's a real mind-f@#%.
The premise is simple: anxiety, tension, and rivalry in a NYC ballet company's production of Swan Lake. But the director, Darren Arenofsky, takes this simple story and makes it a deep and haunting and rich.
The plot goes like this: Nina (played by Natalie Portman) is a ballerina driven to perfection, and yearns for the lead role as the Swan Queen in the company's upcoming production of Swan Lake. She auditions for the role, and she gets it (not before the director tries to get some of her), but with the condition that she needs to fix the weakness in her performance. The Swan Queen part comprises two roles, the White Swan and the Black Swan; and though Nina plays the White Swan to perfection, she has trouble connecting with the dark, imperfect, sensual side of herself to play the Black Swan. At the same time, a new ballerina, Lily (played by Mila Kunis), has joined the company, and she has all the dark edgy qualities required of Nina. Nina's mind starts to buckle under the stress: she deliriously imagines that Lily keeps trying to take her place, and she begins to rebel increasingly violently against her controlling and suffocating ex-ballerina mother. The movie follows her journey into the dark side and her spiraling psychosis.
It's difficult for me to explain why the movie was so scary, but I think the main reason is that in this case the threat is internal. You can always run away from an axe-murderer, but you can never run away from your own mind. Plus, the visuals were really gruesome, and unrelenting. This wasn't a movie that had a rising action, climax, and denouement; instead, the tension only increased and increased as the film went on, until it released spectacularly at the end.
I try to come away from these kinds of heavy films with some lessons, and also I think this film, which is so clearly a glimpse into the mind's abyss, particularly invites it. So here's what I learned:
1. Suppressing any aspect of your personality is not healthy.
At the director's urging, Nina connects with her dark side. But since she had neglected it so much, once she begins to make that connection it overcomes her. Her personality swings to the other extreme and she loses control over her mental equipoise. She isn't able to handle the new ideas and emotions and thoughts that are engulfing her.
2. Perfectionism is an ugly trait.
The crowd that watches Nina's astounding performance only sees the final result, but through the film we witness what the cost is of the perfectionism that leads to that performance. It costs Nina her mental stability—paintings come alive and taunt her, blood stains her hands, she imagines stabbings and voices shouting "I'm not good enough." It costs her her relationship with her mother. It costs her her relationships at the ballet company, where she constantly feels alone and threatened. And ultimately, it costs her ballet: something she presumably picked up for enjoyment becomes mental torture and a death sentence.
1. Ballet can be quite vertiginous.
Arenofsky's cinematography does a good job of showing just how alive and quick ballet can be. I've seen a production, and it looks rather static-y and calm from a distance, but after watching Black Swan I realize the dancers themselves experience a quiet whirlwind.