Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a taut, harrowing thriller that unfolds with palpable tension and nightmarish logic. It's an odd hybrid of backstage melodrama and psychological horror, anchored by two splendid supporting performances and Natalie Portman's best work to date. Aronofsky has never been our subtlest filmmaker, and his operatic tendencies occasionally get the best of him here. But generally speaking, the picture is scary, sexy, and terrific--a freaky mindfuck of the first order.
Nina (Portman) is a soloist with a New York ballet company; focused and intensely dedicated, she's itching for a spotlight in the upcoming season. The company's director Thom (Vincent Cassel, all oily brilliance) is opening Swan Lake--"Done to death, I know," he admits, "but not like this." The same could be said of the backstage intrigue that follows, which finds Nina battling the aging diva who preceded her (Winona Ryder, underused) and the bad girl up-and-comer understudy (an effortlessly erotic Mila Kunis) snipping at her heels. Machinations of this type were old as the hills when they were used in All About Eve; they pretty much unfold as expected.
What is unique and compelling is Aronfsky's particular telling of the oft-told tale, which bores deep into Nina's cracking body and psyche. Aronofsky's regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique is (on most occasions) something of an aesthete, but his camerawork is casual and off the cuff, particularly in the quiet way he regards rehearsals and low-key dialogue scenes. The filmmakers bring us in close to Portman, not just by keeping her front and center (if memory serves, there isn't one scene that she isn't in), but by personalizing her to us--cranking up her heavy breathing as she dances, slowly slipping in more point-of-view shots.
Some of her dancing is doubled by a pro, but the transitions are seamless; it's impossible to figure out what Portman can't do, and after a time, it's not worth trying. You just accept her --she disappears completely into the role of the porcelain perfectionist who is slowly losing her tenuous grasp on reality. There's not a false beat in her performance, which is imbued with a rawness only hinted at in her previous work. As is perhaps explained a time too many, Nina is perfectly suited to the "white swan," sleek and perfect, but she has to "let herself go" to play the seductive and wicked "black swan"; Portman, meanwhile, finds an edge that lets her loosen her control, much as her character must.
Aronofsky, however, occasionally loses control of his narrative, which is inherently slanted towards the melodramatic and prone to an occasional case of the overwroughts. The mother-daughter dynamic is unsettlingly dysfunctional (as Nina's mother, Barbara Hershey is effective, though her plastic surgery has rendered her a bit scary-looking), but when Nina calls home after being cast and says "He picked me, mommy," only Portman's skill sells the contrivance of the moment. There's a cheap trick or two, scare-wise, and a couple of goofy music cues, causing the picture to occasionally dance right up to the edge of silliness.
But Aronfsky is willing to take that risk, which is admirable, and the film is certainly richer for being so chancey. He is fascinated by the rituals of the company--the stretching, the warm-ups, breaking in the shoes, all put across with nearly fetishistic detail. He knows how to keep an audience tense, on edge; the picture knocks around in your rib cage, the way his best films do. He makes ballet visceral and dangerous almost by sheer force of will, slamming the camera around, pounding the music, pushing, burrowing. And he keeps the audience squirming with the little moments when psychological horror turns physical; Nina is constantly tearing herself up, so the screen is filled with close-ups of snipping, cutting, ripping, tugging. It borders on overkill, sure, but it does the job. Black Swan is tough, brutal, powerful filmmaking; it gets under your skin and crawls around there for a while.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.