Wild, woolly, and whacked-out, flamboyant and feverishly psycho, Black Swan is a baroque thriller set in New York’s ballet demimonde; a near-irresistible tale of one ballerina’s psychosexual, phantasmagoric freakout; and a slow creep into insanity with a sensationalistic fairy-tale allure. Unrelentingly intense and ridiculously over the top, it’s extremely high-grade hokum, offering several combustible varieties, a gothic horror show and a thing of monstrous beauty.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a young dancer in a prestigious NYC ballet company, lives with her mother, Erica, a former dancer. The company is preparing to open the season with Swan Lake. Artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, Eastern Promises) has to cast a new principal dancer after forcing Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) into retirement. Although Nina auditions for the part, Thomas looks to Lily (Mila Kunis, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), a new rival at the company, who lacks Nina’s technique and inhibitions. Reeling from violent hallucinations, Nina finds herself locked in a web of competitive intrigue as she prepares for the creative opportunity of a lifetime.
Saddled with the near-impossible role of an impenetrable heroine we must care for without ever understanding, Portman delivers career-high work in Black Swan. Fragile, disarming, brimming with unbridled ambition, bottled-up rage, and submerged lust, she rarely leaves the frame. With due respect to fans of Garden State, Portman hasn’t been this good since the Oscar-nominated Closer and her breakout performances in Léon: The Professional and Heat.
Portman’s take on searing sensuality fused with desperate depression cries out for attention. Extraordinarily subtle, emotionally authentic, and resplendently real, Portman doesn’t just bolster Black Swan; she carries it on her shoulders. Even if she gives the fourth best female performance of 2010 (see here, here, and here), it’s nothing short of heroic, and her portrait of an artist under siege is unmissable and unforgettable.
Arriving with a savage grace, Black Swan glides on bold direction from Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), and the woozy-nightmare-come-to-life cements his reputation as one of the more daring filmmakers of his generation. Aronofsky liberally attacks disciplined substance with brushstrokes of subliminal menace. The camera lurches, leaps, and pirouettes; in some scenes, it feels as if it’s being tossed around the stage. Teetering between trash and art – arthouse by way of funhouse – Aronofsky is nevertheless completely serious about this fever dream, which serves as a fascinating complement to his own The Wrestler.
A cross between The Red Shoes and All About Eve that channels horror maestros David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma, and Dario Argento, Black Swan is an eye-popping, epic, demented head trip that hails from a long tradition of melodramas (42nd Street, A Star Is Born). Gloriously and darkly absurd, it borrows from Fight Club, The Fly, Suspiria, and Mulholland Dr.: it’s influencers are, quite simply, beyond count, and almost all are better than these results.
The Black Swan/White Swan dynamics are too literal, and the film dabbles in Grand Guignol exhibitionism. It’s also excessive, self-important, psychologically imprecise – despite some of my colleagues’ claims, this isn’t Repulsion – and coarse where it should be refined. Yet there’s a schizoid delirium that runs through Black Swan, a sense of anguish and mad momentum that’s both florid and lurid, visceral and voluptuous. It’s the most Keatsian work in Aronofsky’s expanding portfolio of Romanticist explorations.
Artful, operatic, passionate, sexy, it’s all or nothing with Black Swan: embrace or reject the macabre marathon of masochism at your will. In my humble view, it deserves to become a minor classic of heterosexual camp; at the very least, it’s the most risible and riotous backstage drama since Showgirls. Above all, don’t let your daughters grow up to be ballerinas. Let them be test pilots, tightrope walkers, NASCAR drivers – any career is safer than the one involving tutus and tiaras.