Great beauty can hide great ugliness. With its liquid lines and fluid movements, the emphasis on graceful control and sensual abandon, passion embodied in the ethereal moves of the dancers, ballet is considered one the most beautiful of art forms, but it can it is also one of the most punishing ones as well. Dancers will push their bodies to the extremes to perform the perfect pirouette, will starve themselves to stay in shape and will break, bend and mold their bodies in order to plie with the best of them. And its not just the physical that gets pushed the limit — the striving for perfection, the cost of competition, can exert its mental and emotional toll as well. For all its elegance and refinement, ballet can be hell.
Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s mind-bending backstage melodrama, is a descent into the abyss, a seething, lurid trip down into one dancer’s own personal Abaddon as she pushes her already fragile psyche to the breaking point during her preparations for the lead role in her company’s new version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She’s Nina Sears (Natalie Portman) an emotionally stunted, sexually repressed dancer known in her company for her control and impeccable technique. She lives in a cramped New York apartment with her hovering, suffocating mother (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina who gave up her career to have Nina and now lives vicariously through her daughter’s success. Her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), having cruelly and forcibly retired the company’s aging star Beth (Winona Ryder) has awarded Nina the experimental lead role in his version of the ballet, asking the young woman to play both the part of the innocent, love-lorn White Swan and the seductive, impassioned Black Swan. Thomas knows Nina is capable of pulling off the purity of the White Swan; what he’s unsure of is if whether or not Nina has within her the intensity and sensuality necessary for the lusty Black Swan.
Nina, chilly, closed-off and almost pathologically unable to let go, struggles to prove she can play both roles. Driven by a need for utmost perfection, emotionally stunted by her overbearing stage mother, shy, if not outright afraid, of her own sexuality, Nina begins to unravel, her breakdown abated by the presence of Lily (Mila Kunis), a sexy, exotic and uninhibited new dancer who possesses the carnality needed for the Black Swan. Lily becomes Nina’s friend, lover and rival, and Nina quickly descends into a maelstrom of half-glimpsed illusions, paranoid fears and grotesque bodily transformations.
Aronofsky’s film is a delirious, mad, hallucinatory slice of elegant pulp. It’s an All About Eve in which Eve imagines having sweaty lesbian sex, feathers erupt from flesh and an emery board is used in an obscene manner. It’s low-down and high art, a fervid stew of briefly glimpsed doppelgangers and moving paintings, a film in which a simple rash moves in time with sexual climax and the world of ballet is glimpsed in bloody contusions and broken body parts. Black Swan is of a piece with the director’s last movie, The Wrestler, both films portraits of a performer-athlete pushing themselves to the limit, and beyond, for their art. Whereas The Wrestler was aspirational, however, Black Swan is grotesque, refracting its story through a lens of great genre auteurs: Polanski, Cronenberg, Argento, De Palma. Yet Black Swan is no mere homage reel; it’s fully Aronofsky’s own, a febrile macabre that bursts forth from simple drama into a mental, Grand Guignol climax, a truly original work of art.
Aronofsky keeps his film ambiguous, focusing fully on Nina and never the letting the audience know if all that is happening is real, a supernatural menace impinging on the dancer’s already tenuous grasp on reality, or if it is all, indeed, in her mind, Nina’s own form of mental self- subterfuge. As such, the entirety of the film rests on Portman’s slim shoulders, and it proves to be a performance of jaw-dropping impeccability. Wounded, frail, quiet…mad, fearful…stormy, impulsive…Portman is nothing less than shattering, her performance a marvel of complexity and nuance. She’s ably abetted by her supporting class: Kunis, all grown up from her role on the sitcom That 70s Show; Hershey, all Mama Bates protectiveness; Cassel, in his best English-language performance and Ryder, explosive as an emotionally ruined has-been. The score by Clint Mansell, all 40s-melodrama strings, and the lush, yet intimate, cinematography from Matthew Libatique only serve to enhance the disquieting affect of Aronofsky’s film. Marrying ballet and horror, the beautiful and the ugly, Aronofsky has made a movie that is at once strange, alluring, feverish and haunting.