The Snow Queen is a role of two extremes: the naive, innocent White Swan, and the darker Black Swan, a split that provides some obvious but apt symbolism as the film unfolds. Nina just wants to be perfect, but she's so uptight and under so much pressure, from herself and from artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel) and, to a lesser extent, her mother Erica (Hershey), herself a retired dancer. Leroy says Nina just needs to relax, but he hardly makes it easy for her to do so, dealing out a mixture of pressure and sexual harassment. He's good cop, bad cop and sleazy cop to boot.
Leroy's previous darling was Beth (Ryder), but she's getting too old to dance and her behaviour is becoming steadily more erratic. Nina is poised to take her place, except new girl Lilly (Kunis) seems to have other ideas. As the film plays out, we see an escalating rivalry between Nina and Lilly but, as with almost everything that happens in Black Swan, we don't know what is real and what is not. As Nina becomes increasingly disturbed, the lines between reality and tricks of the mind blur, so that she, and we, struggle to untangle fantasy from reality.
This is one of Black Swan's key achievements. We don't just watch as Nina loses her grip. We share the same disconnect from reality, the same confusion, paranoia and uncertainty and we live the experience with her. Even the members of Screenjabber who saw the film couldn't agree on what did and did not actually happen.
If you've heard much about Black Swan already, you may well have heard that there's a scene where Portman and Kunis get hot and heavy. And yes, it's true. But it would be a great shame if Black Swan came to be chiefly defined by the fact that it contains a steamy lesbian scene, given it's also a hugely sophisticated and stylish thriller.