“Black Swan” (2010)
Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” is reminiscent of the director’s previous work, “The Wrestler.” Both films show a struggling person trying to perfect their professional career in performance. There a wrestler and here a ballerina. Both films also boasted an unforgettably physical and demanding performance from an actor. There Mickey Rourke and here Natalie Portman. This, however, is also an even better film. It is an exquisite horror film through and through echoing the feel and paranoia of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” and the electric eroticism of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.”
Let’s first make this clear: Natalie Portman deserves an Oscar for portraying Nina Sayers, the dedicated young woman who loses her mind in the face of her own obsessive strive toward perfection. It is a sublime performance of good and evil, dark and light, the themes of Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” that consume Nina, and it is fearless.
It is a new season with a ballet company in New York City where Nina performs under the scrutiny of director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). He is intelligent but arrogant, egotistic and frightening, a beast rumored to allure the principal ballerina of his choosing. Nina is selected to star in his reimagining of “Swan Lake,” and though she is ecstatic, the pressure is on. She is replacing the former principal and Thomas’ former lover, Beth MacIntyre, who is ferociously bitter and played by Winona Ryder in a role so brief yet enormously powerful and haunting.
New to the company is Lily (Mila Kunis), a free spirit from the west coast who flows with carefree expression and sexuality, the opposite of the frigid Nina. She enters as a professional rival but also a personal role model as Nina wishes to embody Lily’s confidence. It is also what Thomas wants from Nina: more feeling, less technique.
It is clear Nina has been a dancer all her life. She lives in a cramped apartment with her mother, played pitch-perfect by Barbara Hershey, who loves her daughter dearly but is oppressive and overbearing calling Nina her “sweet girl.” Nina’s mother was once a ballerina herself, and one can’t help but get the feeling she’s now living vicariously through her. When Nina returns home, it’s like returning to her jail cell.
Lily enters Nina’s life and wants to free her from her own self-control. Mila Kunis is superb as the sultry temptress, especially during an intoxicating scene at a night club. Nina instead begins to lose herself as she blurs the line between performance and reality. The film opens inside Nina’s dream and continues as a hallucinatory nightmare from there.
Thomas wants to see both sides of Nina, the white swan which she excels at but also the ferocity of the black swan, the one with which she struggles to convey. This use of black and white in the film is to be expected, but Aronofsky puts it to work in playful and tantalizing ways with visual effects that are subtle but chilling.
“Black Swan” is about an inner battle with Natalie Portman at its center, a woman tragically consumed by the demands of her profession while losing sight of all else. Her own life becomes “Swan Lake,” and in effect the film garners an operatic and melodramatic style with Clint Mansell’s take on the orchestrations of “Swan Lake” swelling through every scene which grow into an exhilaratingly manic, gorgeous and demented tour de force of passion. This is one of the year’s very best films.