Well, first off, it’s not a horror movie (and it’s true; I know my horror movies).
The strongest impression I came away with was that this incredibly evocative psychological thriller is a masterful reworking of the Swan Lake tale itself, within the story of a ballerina taking on the challenging roles of the White Swan and her alter ego the Black Swan, and in her real life living through the same heartaches and ultimate demise as the characters she plays. How meta!
If you don’t know Swan Lake, here’s the deal:
Swan Lake is a ballet composed in the late nineteenth century by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, based on a Russian folktale. It tells the story of Odette, a princess cursed by the evil Rothbart to live out her days as a swan and only able to take human form at night — until the spell can be broken by true love. Others are under the same spell and have made her their queen, hence her title, the Swan Queen. One day, the dashing Prince Siegfried is hunting at the lake where Odette lives and sees her transform into her human form. They dance all night and fall in love. He invites her to a ball where he can announce she is to be his bride. But before Odette can become human on the night of the ball, Rothbart brings his own daughter, Odile — disguised as Odette only in black rather than white — and tricks the prince into professing his love to the imposter. Siegfried sees the real Odette at the last minute, and follows her back to the lake, where she aims to kill herself as the only way to truly break the spell. After she flings herself, in human form, into the lake and drowns, Siegfried follows her, and they ascend to heaven to be together forever.
This is a visually absorbing film that excels in a countless number of ways — superb acting (Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder are all at the top of their games), perfect sets, amazing special effects — and perhaps the greatest of these is simplicity of story. It is the story of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, and the evil, black-attired nemesis waiting to take her place is none other than her own dark side, born of long-unfulfilled desires (and perhaps more than a touch of mental illness).
Thanks to the writing talent of Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin, and the directing dexterity of Aronofsky, this film is as riveting as it is disturbing. But movie-watchers looking for a good old scary flick will be disappointed. It is much more of an inner journey, and in that it lives up to its diva’s aspiration:
“I just want to be perfect.”
I’m now even more giddy that Aronofsky is directing The Wolverine, to be released next year!