Reviewers who write about movies for a living, who have to slog through every paint-by-numbers adaptation, seem to have difficulty with two things: spirituality in movies, and the creative process in movies. Mind you, there aren't that many movies about either of those two things because they are also ephemeral streaks of lightning to capture in the film bottle.
What I had read about "Black Swan" prior to seeing it fluctuated on the spectrum from horror flick to Grand Guignol theatre to thriller to scary movie. In short, I really didn't know what to expect. Perhaps it will be one or some of those things to you, too.
How I perceived "Black Swan" was more like a dream. The dream, the central focus for this ballerina, is to be perfect. And she studies and she plies and she does everything she thinks she's supposed to do.
But when the company leader decides to do "Swan Lake," he presents her with this challenge: "You'd be great as the White Swan." But, essentially, she doesn't have enough of a dark side to do the Black Swan justice. (This lead character in the ballet performs both sides of a complex persona.)
"Black Swan," then, is about this striving-for-perfection ballerina figuring out what it takes to reach her own "dark side." What she discovers is that passion and the thrill of life often lie in its imperfections. As we travel with her on her journey, we also discover what is at the heart of the creative process, how far someone can push themselves for their art.
It is a stunning bravura performance. Prior to seeing the film, I posited on my podcast that Natalie Portman was going to take every award in sight this Oscar season. I think so even moreso after seeing the film. Like Christoph Waltz and Mo'Nique last year, every other Best Actress contender this year can just sit down. It's Natalie Portman's year. Her work in this movie is stunning. In fact, I can't remember the last time an actress was so stunning and superb and affecting. Brilliant work.
Her supporting cast is also affecting and may glean some supporting nominations: Vincent Cassel as the ballet company director, Barbara Hershey as her mom, Mila Kunis as a fellow dancer. Winona Ryder takes an especially inspired turn, making a droll commentary on her own life, that elicited laughs in our industry screening.
People have also made reference to an "All About Eve" subtext. That is only there in as much as fearing other people taking roles you covet is part of the creative process. It's really and truly not about that.
In fact, I think where reviewers get into trouble with this role, and even the screening I saw this at, the questioner had the same problem--is dissecting it too much. Think of it as a dream. Roll around with the images, go with the flights of fancy. True creativity isn't that far from the dream state, and true creativity borders on that part of the brain near psychosis too. But don't let that analysis hinder you.
As Nina had to learn, with sex, with dreaming, with life, sometimes you just have to let it flow over you and become part of you. So, too, with "Black Swan."