Film Review: Black Swan

Like a companion piece to the director’s previous film, The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan focuses on another sort of physically and mentally gruelling performance art. But substituting ballet for professional wrestling and swapping in Natalie Portman’s diminutive femininity in place of Mickey Rourke as ultra-macho Randy “The Ram” Robinson does a lot more than reverse the gender polarity and replace one set of professional jargon with another.

Nina Sayers (Portman) is a member of a New York City ballet company preparing for a production of Swan Lake with new modifications by creative director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Always in search of perfection, the tightly wound Nina seems like a shoo-in to replace outgoing prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) as the Swan Queen.

But the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer from San Francisco whose capricious nature and lack of sexual restraint make her ideal to play the other component of the dual role – the seductive Black Swan – throws into question not just Nina’s role in the ballet but her future with the company, her relationship with the ballerinas around her (including her mother, a former dancer), and her very sanity.

Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey.

Nina isn’t past her prime, looking for far-fetched love, or (initially) struggling to find a place for herself. (If Randy the Ram has a doppelganger in this story, it’s Barbara Hershey as Nina’s overprotective mother, living her own unrealized dreams vicariously through her daughter.) Despite similar preoccupations and window dressing, Black Swan shares little with its predecessor in the way of tone or story except a vaguely pessimistic ambiguity in its ending.

But in execution it is similarly impressive. The two female leads are pitch-perfect in their roles, Portman tense and vulnerable while Kunis exudes easygoing hypersexuality without becoming a caricature of promiscuity.

Cassel seems to have been cast largely for his accent, but he does as much justice as could be expected to a role that too transparently serves to motivate the Manichean battlefield ramping up between his leading ladies. (Cassel compares his character to George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet, “a true artist using sexuality to direct his dancers,” but Thomas rather seems more invested in his mind games than the dancing.)

Black Swan’s greatest achievement is the pervasive hysteria it achieves in atmosphere – Aronofsky expresses Nina’s seeming descent into madness with elements appropriated from the horror genre, which haven’t been used this refreshingly since Danny Boyle’s Sunshine – but its most prominent shortcoming is the unapologetic melodrama it employs to get it there.

Clumsily inorganic or simply implausible moments jut out of the narrative like the innards of a machine that works but is losing its casing, exposing bits we aren’t supposed to be aware of. Nina’s mother congratulates her daughter on being named Swan Queen with a huge, sugary cake Nina couldn’t possible indulge in, then petulantly threatens to throw it all out at once for that very reason.

Would Nina really go clubbing and do drugs for the first time the night before a dress rehearsal? Given how easy it is to become invested in Portman as a dedicated but vulnerable ballerina, such contrivances play as unnecessary histrionics.

Thankfully, unlike the majority of sanity-questioning films that toy with the subjectivity of the camera to make us question the reality of what we are seeing, Black Swan does not invite a second viewing in a so-was-this-scene-real-or-not frame of mind. It knows better than to open too many doors it has no intention of passing through so for the most part the trappings of insanity are enthrallingly understated and authentic in presentation.

But prepare for a bit of intensity, not only from the unexpected bursts of violence but also in the pervasive sexuality and innuendo that Aronofsky does not limit to dialogue (never have so many hands found so many crotches in a film without outright nudity).

Much as swooping, vertiginous camerawork amplifies the ballet choreography by New York City Ballet dancer Benjamin Millepied, the lead actors’ arresting performances are heightened by Aronofsky’s confident direction and Clint Mansell’s brooding score, which makes liberal use of Tchaikovsky’s original Swan Lake compositions.

Despite its cutesy moments and its histrionics, Black Swan is a tour de force.