Ballet is an art form known for its precision and beauty. But in “Black Swan,” director Darren Aronofsky uses it to create a disturbing, twisted nightmare. A nightmare so vivid, so entrancing and powerful that it warps the purest form of dance, as well as the sweet innocence of the darling Natalie Portman, into a fierce experience of ravishing beauty and horrifying intensity.
Set in the highly competitive world of New York City ballet, Portman portrays Nina Sayers, a ballerina who devotes every second of her being to dance. When the aging star at her dance company (a startlingly vicious Winona Ryder) is forced into retirement, the artistic director (the smarmy and seductive Vincent Cassel) takes a chance on Nina, giving her the leading role as the Swan Queen in the company’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”
The Swan Queen calls for a dual performance; Nina perfectly fits as the angelic White Swan, but she can’t seem to capture the raw sensuality and lustful power of the Black Swan. Struggling to reach her dark side, Nina receives competition for the part from Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer that exemplifies the sexually charged persona of the Black Swan. But as Nina develops a friendship/rivalry with Lily, faces pressure from the director as well as her controlling stage mother (Barbara Hershey) and makes her transformation into the Swan Queen, her grasp of reality starts slipping as she loses herself in the world around her.
Like all of Aronofsky’s movies, “Black Swan” grabs the attention of viewers right off the bat, and then slowly spins them into a web of resounding anguish with its arresting visuals, infesting paranoia and psychological disturbances. What starts out as an absorbing character drama shifts into a full-throttle thriller, diving into Nina’s fractured psyche so deeply as to lose sense of what’s real and what’s imagined.
As Nina explores the passionate energy of the Black Swan, she opens herself up to an entirely new world, which Aronofsky attacks with reckless abandon. When Lily takes her to a nightclub about halfway through, she shows glimmers of a different side to her. It’s something both fascinating and unsettling to watch, especially due to the trippy manner in which Aronofsky presents it.
The more Nina digs into this fiery alter ego, the more terrifying her surroundings become. A nightmare sequence that kicks off the third act proves to be the most frightening thing I’ve seen all year, and when the movie finally arrives at the climactic performance of “Swan Lake,” I was glued to my seat with rapt anticipation and overwhelming tension. I’ll be damned if it isn’t the most terrifyingly beautiful scene in any film of 2010.
Aronofsky directs with such daring gusto that the fact “Black Swan” is essentially a high-art horror flick never sets in until after the movie’s conclusion. His manipulation of the images onscreen can often induce cringing (ripping hangnails, face stabbing, bone breaking), but other times he ingeniously takes something small or barely noticeable and alters it to unnerving effect. I’ll say right now, the lesbian scene is actually pretty creepy because of how Aronofsky messes with the visuals, and the implementation of mirrors throughout the film is not only chilling but metaphorical as well.
Like in his early works “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” one of Aronofsky’s greatest strengths is mounting a rising tension which permeates the whole piece, taking it on a crescendo that explodes with an intense fury at the end. The interweaving of Tchaikovsky’s score to “Swan Lake” with an original score by Clint Mansell greatly factors into this, sweeping up viewers alongside the stunning, predominantly black and white color palette.
However, it’s the raw talent of Portman that takes the center spotlight throughout, reminiscent of Naomi Watts in the captivating “Mulholland Dr.,” giving her most impressive and challenging performance yet. The change she takes on from beginning to end is remarkable, from just a timid and fragile little ballerina to a ferocious, devastatingly breathtaking performer. Portman is better known for her emotional subtlety, which she’s mastered here, but the psychosis she exhibits, tearing her apart, is what makes this performance Oscar-worthy. And as she commands the stage as the Swan Queen at the end, she’s a revelation to watch.
This is Portman’s movie all the way, although the supporting players prove excellent as well. Kunis is fairly new to dramatic roles, and here she’s occasionally used as comedic relief, but her striking, flowing movements on the dance floor mirror her nymph-like deception. Hershey on the other hand is particularly scary, a demanding, wicked witch of a mother that towers over Nina constantly.
With “Black Swan,” Aronofsky blurs the line between adult horror movie and ballsy psychological thriller, delivering the best of both worlds in a mindbender viewers won’t soon forget. Aronofsky turns dance into an intense, haunting, delirious and mesmerizing thrill ride.
Ballet will never be the same again.
Four out of Four Stars