Well here's a wonderfully pleasant surprise for the old-school, straight-faced horror fans who occasionally like a little depth and artistry from their beloved genre...
On one hand, Black Swan is an "Oscar bait" film through and through. It comes from a celebrated filmmaker (Darren Aronofsky of Requiem for a Dream) and features a well-admired actress (Natalie Portman) trying something well outside her normal material. It's quiet and dramatic and multi-layered (and oh yes it's about ballet) and it's all the things that film critics and award-givers love to celebrate about film.
On the other, Black Swan is a horror movie. A great one, really, and one that pulls off the best sort of balancing act: it pays loving (sometimes obvious) homage to past classics while confidently forging forward on its own creative steam. Perhaps it's just because I naturally look for these sorts of things, but throughout the whole of Aronofsky's piece I caught glimpses of the early thrillers from Nicolas Roeg, Roman Polanski, Brian De Palma, Dario Argento, and (yes) even some quick dashes of David Cronenberg. Black Swan is entirely "accessible" as a dark drama, a psychological thriller, or whatever else you need to call it if you're not a horror fanatic ... but trust me, it's a creepy, fascinating, and masterfully constructed horror movie.
The plot sees a powerfully talented but emotionally-stunted young ballerina who desperately wants the dual role in a strange new version of "Swan Lake." The director (Vincent Cassel, both charming and slyly malevolent, as usual) wants his lead to play both the sweet, virginal heroine (which is no problem for little Nina), but also the darker --and considerably more "adult"-- side of the doomed character. So it's not just that Nina must dance her little heart out; she needs to also get in touch with her more "adult" side ... in a hurry. Not helping matters are a curious new dancer (the deliciously cool Mila Kunis), a perpetually meddlesome mother (Barbara Hershey, channeling Piper Laurie just a bit, minus the religious fervor), and the angst caused by the horrible injury of an aging ballerina (Winona Ryder) who's also quite furious at the world.
Nina has a distinct set of issues well before she lands the coveted role(s), but once her wishes come true and the high-pressure rehearsals begin, well, things start to unravel on a variety of levels. Our fragile little ballerina becomes nervous, and then paranoid, and then ... something else entirely. Aronofsky charts Nina's unfortunate spiral with a stunning amount of craftsmanship and confidence, taking his time in smaller, earlier scenes before pulling out some fantastic extended sequences of dance, music, and a rather fascinating descent into an obsessed woman's manic fears. Beyond all that, Black Swan is some sort of delicious buffet for movie buffs: the music, when it's not Tchaikovsky, is Clint Mansell at his most lush and accomplished; Matthew Libatique's cinematography is stark and lovely at some moments, jittery and frenzied in others; the movie is also edited quite well, never lingering too long or wandering down dead-ends; and there's a palpable sense of intangible unease that gradually increases as the film goes on.
Like all the best artworks, regardless of medium, Black Swan may be "translated" a thousand different ways, and here's one that kept bouncing through my head as the film went on: it's sort of the female version of Fight Club. Where David Fincher's film was (at least partially) focused on all the things that make "modern" man feel small, lost or insignificant, Aronofsky's focuses on (and then amplifies) every female-oriented insecurity under the sun: the need for motherly approval and well-earned praise; the drive to be perfect (and perfectly feminine) in the face of opportunities and obstacles; and the inevitably slick slope between demure girlishness and full-bore female sexuality. Hell, as the film begins, Nina is already the epitome of a little girl's dream figure: she's pretty and dainty and thin and (oh, yes) a world-class ballerina, but this particular swan is in many ways still the awkward duckling. Basic but specific insecurities that all women face, amplified to an extreme and wonderfully cinematic degree, lead to a downward spiral that's both tragic and fascinating to behold.
Clearly this is the sort of horror movie one could happily "debate" for an hour or two.
But while Black Swan is most assuredly a (fine, psychological) horror film, there's no denying that its biggest influence is the masterful 1948 Powell / Pressburger (non-horror) classic The Red Shoes, which is arguably the best film ever made about the ballet (and a whole lot more). That Aronofsky (along with screenwriters Michael Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin) was able to combine so many disparate components into such an effortlessly fascinating concoction is, come to think of it, not all that big of a surprise. That Black Swan hearkens back (and quite lovingly) to some of the creepiest flicks of the 1970s -- and that it's absolutely one of the year's coolest movies -- absolutely is a surprise. A very darkly enjoyable one.