Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan opens in the middle of a fever dream, where the petite but potent ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) dances alone on a vast, pitch-black stage, perfecting her physical moves while spinning away from her mental demons.
Whether or not Swan ever emerges from that nightmare
state is open to interpretation. Nina does allow herself a moment of euphoric,
dream-like elation when she learns from dance company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent
Cassel) that she has, indeed, won the coveted lead role in his reimagining of
“Swan Lake.” But that ecstasy is short-lived, and soon Nina’s professional drive begins
driving her insane, leaving us to pray she’ll somehow wake from this self-inflicted terror.
Aronofsky isn’t breaking new ground. Obsession with a specific quest — and the repercussions of one becoming consumed by the journey — has powered most of his films, be it Hugh Jackman’s futile search a medical cure in The Fountain, Mickey Rourke’s battle to reclaim the limelight in The Wrestler, or Portman’s need to capture and maintain the role of a lifetime.
And yet, Black Swan comes off as intoxicatingly fresh, fearless, exhilarating, and exhausting. Aronofsky neither recycles nor replenishes the materials that continue to engage him. Instead, he views them through different prisms. Here, it’s the unnerving trademarks of the Gothic horror genre that help give Swan a new spin, allowing Aronofsky to make the most artistic exploitation film you’ll see in years.
Black Swan‘s cheeky genre gimmicks — the physical mutilation, the use of obvious mirror imagery, that insane rave sequence — are more palatable with Portman in the lead. Much was made, at the time, of Rourke’s soulful, candid, and painfully sincere portrayal in Aronofsky’s similar Wrestler, and how he probably prevented that falling-star drama from being as stretched out, faded, and cheesy as the glittery tights worn by his aging character.
Portman should receive as much praise, if not more, for the miraculous way she centers Black Swan any time it threatens to swan dive into lunacy. She’s mesmerizing in every scene she’s in (which, I think, is every scene in the film). But it goes beyond the actress’s physical preparation. Portman’s porcelain face also betrays Nina’s perpetual anxiety that she is going to lose control and crumble, literally, into dust. Of course, Leroy constantly badgers Nina about letting go of her rigid self-control if she hopes to one day achieve artistic transcendence. But rational minds understand the distinction between dedication toward your craft and outright obsession. Black Swan acknowledges the difference, then delights in blurring the line that separates the mental states.
Portman walks a high-wire of tension between inner conflict and outer demonstration that many in the ballet world likely endure, and it’s breathtaking to observe. She’s supported by Mila Kunis (as the rival) and Barbara Hershey (as the fanatical mom), and while both are strong, their secondary roles are avenues into Nina’s disturbed psyche; more often than not, they are lobbing softball pitches to Portman’s home-run hitter.
Though parallels between Swan and Wrestler are unavoidable, the former goes out of its way to emphasize that, unlike the unbreakable warriors of the wrestling ring, these younger dancers are mentally and physically fragile creatures of habit. That emphasis is hammered home by veteran dancer Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder). Nina clamors to fill the void left by Beth’s “retirement.” In truth, Beth’s crippled by the anguish and frustration of being past her prime in her early 30s, and this drives her to extreme measures.
In Beth, Nina sees her future as a broken, chewed up, and discarded husk of flesh. We think, briefly, of Rourke’s wrestler fighting off age in hopes of continuing his passion, but we don’t have time to linger because that isn’t the story Aronofsky’s trying to tell. Because of Nina’s younger age, and the infusion of potential she’s threatening to squander, Black Swan resonates as a dark loss-of-innocence fable, or a cautionary quest-for-approval tale. It doesn’t transcend so much as it descends, rapidly, into madness. But it thrills every toe-shoed step of the way.