Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied. (2010, R, 108 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 10, 2010
After 2008’s conventionally plotted, overpraised The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky dives back into another competitive sport of sorts in the deliciously wackadoodle Black Swan. This drama-horror hybrid, set within a New York ballet company, strikes a tone more along the lines of the terrifying hallucinatories of Aronofsky’s breakout film, Requiem for a Dream, revisiting, too, favorite themes of monster mommies and female hysteria. In an opening dream sequence, an overlooked ballerina named Nina Sayers (Portman) imagines herself dancing the lead in Swan Lake; when she wakes in the morning, it’s with a little girl’s smile at a wish-fulfillment fantasy come true, however fleetingly. It’s her last moment of uncomplicated bliss before a brutalizing descent into madness. The dream, it turns out, is prophetic: Nina is tapped early on by the troupe’s manipulative, Diaghilevlike company director (Cassel) to play the Swan Queen, which is in fact two roles in one – the sweet, virginal White Swan, who awaits a true-love kiss from a prince, and her evil twin, the sexually provocative Black Swan, who lures the prince away. Nina is a tentative, bruises-easily young woman who still lives with her overbearing mother (played by a marvelous Hershey; ever-hovering, she grooms her daughter like a maniacal monkey with nail clippers). Nina is a natural for the White Swan, but embodying the Black Swan is a stretch for her. Already crumbling under the punishing stresses of training, a twisted home life, and her own sexual repression, soon enough she’s having scary visions of her body’s metamorphosis into a swan. The Red Shoes and its theme of losing one’s self to a part is an obvious influence, but it’s another Powell and Pressburger film, Black Narcissus, with its sex-starved nuns, that hits closer to home. Black Swan is part of a tradition – I hesitate to call it grand, but it’s certainly cinematically fertile – of young women whose desire, sans an outlet, explodes into delirium. Potent stuff, that. (See also: Polanski’s Repulsion and Kazin’s Splendor in the Grass; Aronofsky surely has.) In previous roles, Portman’s petite frame was bolstered by a husky, lightly ribald voice; she could have handily dispatched the part of Nina’s competitor, Lily, but then we wouldn’t have had the surprise delight of Kunis – earthy, kittenish, calculating, and miles from her amusingly bratty turn on That ’70s Show. But Portman has a few tricks up her sleeve, too: She strips herself of sensuality, even keying that husky voice to a higher, thinner pitch, and she wears a perplexed look throughout, as if she's trying to remember map directions and is stuck on whether the first turn is a right or a left. She’s dynamite stuff – a very good dancer, too, at least to this untrained eye – and she looks appropriately hounded by a camera that stalks her from behind and circles her, ensnaring her, especially in the harrowing closing performance of Swan Lake (scored, of course, to thundering Tchaikovsky; it’s never sounded so menacing). The entire last act is giddily torturous to watch, with plot turns that are almost aggressively bewildering. But, as they say, let’s go back to the text. The script (by Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin, and Andres Heinz, from a story by Heinz) tips its hand as soon as it spells out the plot of Swan Lake, and Aronofsky hammers the idea home every time a mirror fractures faces into multiples or Nina spots her own visage in people on the street: This is about flight from self. That simple fact is obscured – but not confused – by Aronofsky’s expert use of horror-film technique via jump cuts and creepy audio cues, wherein even the squish of a cut grapefruit is amplified to queasy, supremely uneasy effect. But what startles most is how exquisitely controlled his command of so much madness truly is. He mashes high art and low, classical and camp, and whips it all up with a kind of baroque frenzy for a sumptuously unnerving, singular experience.