Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) just wants to be perfect. She’s a ballet dancer in New York City, and thanks to her mother (Barbara Hershey), she knows nothing else. She’s not loose enough for company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), in every sense of the word; he wants whoever will successfully embody both the virginal White Swan and the sensual Black Swan in his upcoming production of Swan Lake. Nina’s all technique, while newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) personifies pure impulse. Only one will take the place of aging star, Beth (Winona Ryder).
Nina’s worried about being replaced, rejected, retired against her own will, and Thomas wants her to expand – nay, eradicate – her boundaries so that she can achieve greatness. (His idea of a homework assignment: “Go home and touch yourself.”)
From there, Nina’s grip on reality begins to unravel as she pushes herself for the role, and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan becomes as much a waking nightmare as it is a ripe showbiz melodrama and a bold sexual awakening for its protagonist. For the director, it’s yet another tale of obsession, executed somewhere between the full-blown visual wonderment of The Fountain and his gritty minimalist approach to The Wrestler.
The film’s environments and costumes are mostly monochromatic in nature, only to be infected by increasingly rosy tones (lipstick, scarves, rashes, stab wounds) and the occasional splash of sickly green in a mother’s home or a hospital hallway, with the two hues united in a strobe-happy rave sequence. Matthew Libatique’s grainy cinematography establishes an early sense of realism, which, when combined with effectively eerie sound design, makes later-on hallucinations feel all the more insidious as they begin to plague our poor ballerina.
And oh, our poor, high-strung ballerina: When she’s not starving herself or puking, she’s bleeding and seeing things. It would seem that she inherited the verge-of-tears look from her creepy-clingy mother; Nina is so eager to please, determined yet frail. Portman’s never been this thoroughly good, alternately elegant and fierce and wounded, and if Aronofsky hadn’t pushed her, if she hadn’t pushed herself as she does here, we’d merely be talking about a high-class piece of hokum.
Aronofsky, in a sense, pushes himself to transcend the clichés and make something that’s as beautiful as it is sinister. His visual tricks are sly (how do we not see the camera in a mirrored studio?), though his imagery is often more striking than subtle. Reflections and doppelgangers are the name of the game here, and it’s no accident that Portman, Kunis, Hershey and Ryder all bear a passing resemblance to one another; even Nina’s first name and last initial on a dressing room door suggests a certain plural presence. This dichotomy extends to the film’s aesthetic, as the hovering camera looms and Clint Mansell’s score soars, serving as a grand soundtrack to a grimy, intimate, paranoid state of mind.
It’s an all-or-nothing effort from the auteur, as reminiscent of The Red Shoes as it is of All About Eve and Mulholland Drive (not to mention the earlier works of Cronenberg, Argento and Polanski). After repeat viewings, I’m still not sure if Black Swan is perfect, but it is audacious and salacious in equal and ample measure, and it showcases a lead performance that’s impossible to ignore.
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