THOSE EXPECTING BLACK SWAN to be one of the best pictures of 2010 might want to adjust their expectations. While Darren Aronofsky's eagerly anticipated film is a lot of things—beautiful, weird, sexy, daring—it's a bunch of other things, too: inconsistent, goofy, unintentionally funny. At least, I think some of its humor is unintentional—but still, and despite having seen it twice, I'm not entirely sure. That might be Black Swan's greatest asset, actually: It's a film worth puzzling out, and one that offers plenty of things to puzzle over.
On the surface, it's a labyrinthine, complex, surreal story about tricky, slippery stuff: self-image, reality, sex, art, aging, death, failure. Deeper down, it's something simpler: a movie about a ballerina going batshit crazy. Nina (Natalie Portman, in a performance as good as everyone's saying it is) is part professional ballerina, part infantile naïf. Gorgeous but nearly asexual, Nina's obsessively driven to succeed in an exhausting, backstabby world of competitive twentysomething girls, puking up what little she eats and practicing so much she's started to wear holes in the floor of the apartment she shares with her creeeepy mother (Barbara Hershey). So when Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the creeeepy director of Nina's ballet company, announces his bold new production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Nina's desperate to get him to cast her as the lead. The only problem? Nina's got some sexy, sexy competition from the kinda creeeepy—but mostly just smokin' hot—Lily (a fantastic Mila Kunis). Oh, and I guess there's another problem too: As she starts to find bloody scratches on her body and suffers increasingly disturbing visions, Nina realizes she might be physically transforming into something avian and horrid.
As anyone who saw Requiem for a Dream or The Wrestler can attest, Aronofsky's got a hell of a knack for body horror—but while Black Swan has its fair share of wince-inducing, shudder-worthy bits of bodily mutilation, Aronofsky's attempts to delve into Nina's psyche are less adept. As Black Swan spirals toward an increasingly ludicrous third act, audiences' tolerances will be tested: This thing's gonna be discussed just as much as it was anticipated, and in advance of a post-film debate, you might want to decide how much you think Aronofsky's intentions matter, and how seriously you're willing to take a psychological thriller that's so silly at times you might laugh out loud. (Regardless of the above questions, I think we can all agree on one thing: No other film this year will feature [A] Natalie Portman turning into a giant bird, or [B] Natalie Portman making out with Jackie from That '70s Show, unless the Coen Brothers' True Grit has some serious surprises up its sleeve.)
With its subtly unnerving CG, loaded symbolism, and a claustrophobic aesthetic cobbled together from cold grays, blacks, whites, and pinks (and roughly 100,000 mirrors), Black Swan's unlike anything else this year. If it goes too far—if Aronofsky ventures too deep into Nina's slowly shattering brain, or if he overestimates his audience's patience for plot twists and surrealism—it's not for lack of ambition or confidence. Maybe Black Swan will creep you out, or maybe it'll crack you up; if you're like me, maybe it'll do both. That certainly makes it one of 2010's most interesting films, if not one of its best.