Once upon a time, a filmmaker named Darren Aronofsky had the bright idea to make a film about ballet, specifically about a chaste, sheltered young ballerina named Nina (Natalie Portman) struggling to dance the role of the Swan Queen in a new production of Swan Lake. The Swan Queen is a dual role that requires the dancer to embody both the White Swan, a fragile innocent, and the Black Swan, a dark seductress. Nina, obsessed with perfecting her performance, has the tragic White Swan down pat, but is unable to summon her evil twin. Nina's sexual awakening and the emergence of her inner demons parallel the plot of the ballet. This includes the presence of Lily (Mila Kunis), a sexually adventurous rival who may be out to sabotage Nina, and a fickle male savior in the form of the ballet company's director, Tomas (Vincent Cassel).
Two older women also help drive the story and serve as cautionary examples for Nina. A constant pressure is Nina's relationship with her suffocating mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), an embittered former dancer. And then there's Beth (Winona Ryder), the company's prima ballerina who is being forced into retirement and not taking it well, to say the least. Aronofsky's approach is to take all of these elements and push them to almost ridiculous extremes. It's not enough that Lily threatens to seduce every male in sight, but she also targets Nina, leading to the much ballyhooed lesbian sex scene in the second act. Beth not only becomes self-destructive, but self-mutilating and barking mad. And then there's Nina's transformation into the black swan, literally, with the help of makeup effects and CGI animation. The movie only gets away with it because Nina may be imagining some or all these things, as part of an intense mental breakdown.
Aronofsky has gone and pulled a Quentin Tarantino on us. "Black Swan," which is ostensibly a melodrama about pressures and rivalries in the world of classical ballet, turns out to be a slasher flick in disguise. And it's not only a slasher flick, but one that also has elements of 70s sexploitation, horror films, and more than a little camp. They're all elevated and refined to a degree, of course, but you can spot the genre influences everywhere. The first half of the film is similar to psychological thrillers in the tradition of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" and "Rosemary's Baby." And then comes the gore and the sex and the CGI feathers, and suddenly the picture takes a hard left turn straight into flesh-melting David Cronenberg territory. It's awfully fun to watch, but also very disconcerting for any viewer caught unawares by all the graphic content.
Compared to Aronofsky's other films, "Black Swan" may have structural similarities to "The Wrestler," but its use of magic realism and a smorgasbord of visual tricks, recalls the visceral misery of his drug-addiction epic, "Requiem for a Dream." As an audience, we're used to seeing ballet from a distance, enjoying the illusion of seemingly effortless physical grace. In "Black Swan," we get an uncomfortably up-close look at the demands of maintaining that illusion. The costs of being a professional dancer of a certain caliber are high, and it's hard to keep from wincing at the lengths Nina is willing to go to in order to acheive perfection. Aronofsky spares us nothing, focusing on warped limbs and abraded skin, and turning a simple act of personal grooming into one of the most nerve-wracking moments of the film.
The director's shock-and-awe tactics aside, the movie belongs to Natalie Portman. After years of manic-pixie-dreamgirls and comic-book heroines, it's good to see her branching out into more interesting territory. The physical demands of the role alone are staggering, but Portman plays so many different facets and projections of the fractured Nina, in several scenes she's effectively acting against herself. Aronofsky uses tight shots that focus on her upper body, possibly to help fudge some of the dancing, but this means that Portman looms intimately large in the frame, often dead center, for most of the film. And we never see her falter for a second. Her performance is vital in grounding the outlandish elements that Aronosky keeps throwing at us, especially the campier sexual encounters that could have gone very wrong if Portman wasn't so convincing.
I liked the other performances, especially Winona Ryder and Mila Kunis making the most of smaller roles, but the narrative doesn't linger for very long with any of them. Rather, Matthew Libatique's hallucinatory cinematography, Clint Mansell's thunderous arrangements of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," and Craig Henighan's sound design come off as the more vital contributions to "Black Swan." I wouldn't be surprised if Swan Lake sees a resurgence in popularity after this film, though the usual, older audience for ballet is probably going to be very put off by it. My only real complaint about "Black Swan" is with its marketing. Ever Oscar ad and commercial has been signaling that this is a typical awards' season prestige pic, when in fact it's one of the most intense and effective horror films in years.
So if you see one bisexual ballerina blood-curdler this year, see "Black Swan"!