“I know it’s been done to death… but not like this.” That’s what director Thomas Leroy (the intoxicating Vincent Cassel) tells his ballet company when he announces they’re beginning the season with a new production of Swan Lake, explaining it will be “stripped-down” and “visceral.” He might as well have been talking about Black Swan as well, for it’s the type of psychological thriller we’ve seen a lot of in recent years. The plot is a strange amalgamation of Showgirls and Single White Female, yet still wholly original and horrifying.
When Leroy eventually casts Swan Lake, its a dedicated young dancer named Nina (Natalie Portman) who lands the lead — the emotionally and physically demanding dual role of both the Black and White Swan. Nina’s casting pushes the former star attraction (Winona Ryder, who makes quite an impression in just a few scenes) into retirement and alienates her from the rest of the dancers based on Leroy’s reputation with his pet dancers.
While Nina’s rigid style ideally fits the mold of the White Swan, she struggles to tap into the sensuality required for the character’s dark alter-ego. She begins to feel threatened by a new, less refined dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis in a shockingly good breakthrough role). Lily might lack the technical prowess of Nina, but she dances with the free-flowing passion that Leroy has been trying to get out of Nina.
The obsessive Nina succumbs to the pressures from her seductive director and her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), and the role quickly moves from all-consuming to out-of-body entirely. Natalie Portman is mesmerizing in a role that she has been attached to for nearly ten years. Her physical transformation into the ultra-skinny body of a ballet dancer is just as impressive as the emotional whirlwind she puts us through.
Though the film takes place in the glossy, high class world of ballet, the cinematography by Aronofsky’s long-time collaborator Matthew Libatique is gritty and intimate. He makes good use of extreme close-ups and long takes during the dance sequences, which give us room to appreciate the work Portman has put in and the craft of ballet as a whole. The haunting score from Clint Mansell (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) adds to the atmosphere. We never feel at ease, even in the most innocent, low-key moments.
Director Darren Aronofsky has always had a way with pushing the audience into feeling a character’s perspective, but this is a different animal entirely as he blends reality with delusional ambiguity. His use of mirrors and shadows as doppelgangers is brilliant, borrowing heavily from 1940s film noir. I do, however, think he goes to the well a bit too often with the over-the-shoulder POV shot that worked so well in The Wrestler.
This is a world that, much like professional wrestling, forces its performers to use their bodies in a uniquely athletic ways. They’re practically beating themselves up for the sake of entertainment. Black Swan exhibits the emotional distress of striving for perfection — and the mind is even more fragile than a tiny dancer’s ankle or toenail.