We first meet Nina (Natalie Portman) in a dream. In it her perfectly executed movement is juxtaposed to shades of light from a theatre, where she is the Odette, the princess in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. It is the scene where she must thwart the advances of the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. She does so, fluttering gracefully around on tip-toe before the scene fades out.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream), Black Swan is a jarring, extensive look at the effect of fears upon the psyche, whether real or imagined. Nina, a veteran ballet dancer, is good enough to get recurring roles but just not the biggest one. That changes though when the theatre’s artistic director Thomas (a lusty Vincent Cassel) decides to cast a younger face into the role of the Swan Princess for their upcoming version of Swan Lake. Initially, he lies to Nina in telling her that Veronica (a delicious, bitchy turn by Ksenia Solo) has got the part. As she is about to leave, he shuts the door and delivers a frank summation of her dancing technique before kissing her. She bites him as a reflex action but with this one gesture, Thomas is apparently inspired to give her the role.
Of course, he does not tell her this but the look on Nina’s face when the roles are finally posted begins her ascent to stardom and rocky descent into madness. She quickly experiences highs (her mom’s unabashed approval) as well as lows (the word ‘whore’ scribbled on a bathroom mirror). It is at this point that her dreams start to get darker. She starts to pick at her skin and fingernails. This is followed by bulimia and, finally, neurological projection. The film’s brilliant cinematography works in tandem with Aronofsky’s idea of showing her inner conflict as primarily black and white and their conflict upon each other as dual forces, coursing throughout Nina. It captures the isolation that surrounds her, making her every move knife-edged. Portman—in the role of a lifetime—delivers deftly: along with Clint Mansell’s score, she is the constant that allows Aronofsky to pull off what is a totally engrossing film.
Aronofsky’s lens only gets dicey when it refuses to explore fully the duplicity of everyone. Erica (a frighteningly-good Barbara Hershey) watches over her daughter’s career in an unbearable manner. Her apartment serves as both prison and shrine to Nina’s accomplishments. The extent of her envy though is obvious but never tested. Beth (Winona Ryder), whom Nina envies, is hellish because she only sees younger versions of herself literally willing to suck up to Thomas for stardom. Then there is Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina’s shadow for the play, who is carefree and sensual...all the things Nina is not. The range of envy with the latter two is never revealed either but it’s clear that they too are knee-deep in basic insecurities. The type that forces them to spend so much time together but never truly pulling them closer to any sort of bond, just tense rivalry at every turn.
Black Swan never approaches a truce or communal peace, just a result without emphasizing it. ‘All the dedication, for what?’ Thomas asks Nina at one point and she remains speechless. What she should respond with is obvious but even clearer is the fact that she must not say it or else things may change yet again. Thomas, modeled after the legendary George Balanchine, waits for her to gather up the courage but realizes that she’s just not ready yet. But she will be one day because he’s seen this all before. What he hasn’t figured out yet is why his stars end up psychologically scarred nor the extent of his hand in it. He merely pits them against each other and hopes for the best.
Of course no one who sees Black Swan will forget the exquisite torture Portman brings to her role. If every Aronofsky film features a central performer struggling for redemption--the delusional Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) in Requiem for a Dream, Randy the Ram’s (Mickey Rourke) painful meltdown in The Wrestler—then Nina is the result of what happens when there is no happy ending, just heavy delusion. Aronofsky takes a step deeper into the psychotic thriller genre with Black Swan—the point at which he’s no longer mimicking classics but attempting his own. He does borrow heavily from Polanski’s Repulsion but he’s taken that film’s silent idiosyncrasies and turns them into contemporary, transmogrified terror. Whereas Polanski jabs repeatedly at the androphobia gripping Carol (Catherine Deneuve) but fails to reveal its source origin, Aronofsky manifests Nina’s hallucinations at every angle the camera allows him to. And even though we’re robbed of time to witness the full Freudian damage, we know what Nina’s demons are capable of and she will ultimately pays the price for daring to achieve perfection.
That ultimately sets Black Swan up for a lot of personal interpretation. More terrifyingly though it reveals a well noted psychosis and its often-times overstepped limits. It demands outstanding direction from Aronofsky and he delivers and he in turn throws back a fanatical dare to its star, Portman; engulfing both in a hectic pas de deux that ultimately should land her an Oscar. In the process, Black Swan revels smugly in its own controlled world of conflicted emotions that takes no prisoners or cry-babies, just absolute prince and princesses when the curtains go up—or down.