Black Swan begins with an exhilarating ballet number. The camera circles continuously around Nina (Portman) as she performs Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a ballet that requires her to adopt the personalities of both the “White Swan” and the “Black Swan.” The cinematography and choreography are breathtaking as the number progresses, slowly spiraling out of control as the dark side increasingly takes over.
This tension between the bipolar personalities of Swan Lake’s protagonist drives the film, as Nina embodies the White Swan’s grace and fragility but cannot quite demonstrate the manic intensity required to play the Black Swan. She feels pressure from both the ballet’s misogynistic director (Cassel) and Lilly, a fellow ballerina whose eroticism and mysterious attraction are brilliantly captured by Mila Kunis. Nina must therefore learn to loosen up and embrace darkness in order to secure the leading role; that is, if she doesn’t lose her mind first.
Natalie Portman surely deserves an Oscar nomination for her work. She is the anchor of the film, frequently shot in close–ups that document every aspect of her facial expressions. Even as the film becomes unhinged Portman is able to bring out the humanity and vulnerability of her character, inviting sympathy. Portman also trained as a ballerina for an entire year just for this part, and her incredible dancing is nearly as good as the members of the Philadelphia Ballet who were cast as extras.
Black Swan draws upon a long cinematic history, as Nina’s struggles with confidence, sexuality and insanity mirror the protagonists of must–see classics like The Piano Teacher, Antichrist and Repulsion. Aronofsky adopts this genre with a self–conscious camp aesthetic, mixing psychological horror with playful humor and a willingness to take scenes over the top. The result is an entertaining and beautifully shot tour de force.
However, while many moments of the film are exhilarating, Aronofsky never quite delves deeply enough into the material. Sure, it’s fun to watch scenes that achieve a high shock factor — psychological moments that include peeling skin, lesbian sexuality, breaking limbs and ghosts in the mirror. But camp has been done better before, and at times Black Swan loses its audience in its repetition and lack of insight. Nevertheless, the film’s energy and gorgeous production values allow it to stand out in this disappointing fall season, and it begs to be seen at a sold–out late–night screening.
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Rated R, 103 min.