Darren Aronofsky’s bizarre and brilliant Black Swan might remind you of many other movies, from All About Eve to David Cronenberg’s The Fly. But it’s also like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
A symphony of opposites, it combines the cinéma-vérité style of Frederick Wiseman’s La danse with a claustrophobic subjectivity reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Its clinical realism comes loaded with enough mirrors and scenery chewing to fill a Douglas Sirk film festival, and its Red Shoes–like balletic effusions flare into horror-movie metamorphoses. The effect is unique, bewildering, and unforgettable, a portrait of the artist as a shattered personality, a non-stop fusion of cinematic choreography set to a lush Tchaikovsky-esque score. Black Swan is almost a perfect ballet in itself: sublime, excessive, and verging on the absurd.
Fortunately, strong performances keep this earnest extravaganza from flying off into piffle. Natalie Portman puts in her best work to date as Nina, the exquisite, porcelain beauty of a ballerina whose driving desire, instilled in her by the ultimate stage mother (Barbara Hershey), is to win the plum part of Odette/Odile in her company’s upcoming production of Swan Lake. The artistic director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), who’s a sexual-harassment lawsuit waiting to happen, sees her as fine for the White Swan half of this dual role, but as for the id-like Black Swan, he isn’t so sure. For that, she’ll need to get in touch with her inner bird.
Meanwhile, a new dancer is in town: Lily, played by Mila Kunis as the brash, almost blowzy antithesis of Nina. Lily can intrude into Nina’s life at the most inopportune times — as when she arrives noisily late at a rehearsal when Nina is laboring on some key steps under Thomas’s despotic direction. But she can also pop by at just the right moment — as when Nina is having a Mommie Dearest run-in with her mother and Lily offers her an opportunity to escape to a wild night of roofies and girl-on-girl sex.
Or was it? At this point, Black Swan appears to be taking a detour down Mulholland Drive. Regardless, the experience puts some feathers on Nina’s chest. Now maybe she can fulfill Thomas’s demands and “lose control.”
So far, so clichéd: the good girl and her naughty alter ego need to meet and greet in order for the real performance to begin. This would seem a sophomoric formulation if Aronofsky didn’t make it palpably real, and if the rhythms and the mood of the editing and the images were not so incantatory. The drably chiaroscuro palette seems both naturalistic and dreamy, and the vérité camera captures the sheer physicality of the dancers and their regimen, offering so many close-ups of women’s battered feet, you could think you were watching a Tarantino movie. Toenails and fingernails especially are brutalized, and when Nina peels a hangnail almost down to her wrist, it’s a signal that this swan may be ready to take wing.
And is the audience? Portman won me over in the scene in which, having learned that she’s won the part, she slinks to the bathroom — this time not to vomit, but to call her mother and tell her the news. The emotions on her face — terror, grief, and childlike joy — are devastating. It’s good preparation for her final transformation into the Black Swan. Not the Grand Guignol effects, but the flaming eyes of someone possessed — and perfect.
Black Swan | Directed by Darren Aronofsky | Written by Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, and John McLaughlin | with Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder | Fox Searchlight | 103 minutes