Black Swan, the fifth (and best) film by director Darren Aronofsky, is something of a summation of the filmmaker’s previous work. There’s the mind-bending enigma of Pi and The Fountain; the harrowing horror of Requiem for a Dream; and the detailed exploration of a profession that requires athleticism and precision, like The Wrestler.
Even though Aronofsky didn’t write Black Swan (the screenplay is credited to Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin), and even though the story of a fragile ballerina seems like the last thing you’d expect him to direct, Black Swan still feels like a project tailor-made for the filmmaker’s strengths. The movie offers little in terms of plot: The young Nina (Natalie Portman), formerly a company dancer, lands the lead role of the Swan Queen in a new production of Swan Lake by her director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), but with one condition: She has the innocence and naiveté of the white swan down pat, but must work at drawing out the sexuality and seductive power of her evil twin, the black swan.
The film opens with a dream, an obvious warning that not everything you are about to see is actually happening, and we soon share one of Nina’s paranoid hallucinations, which informs us there is something not quite right about this polite, tremulous young woman. Her mom Erica (Barbara Hershey) treats her in an almost childlike manner that suggests a variety of things: Is something wrong with Nina? Is Erica living out her failed ballet aspirations through her daughter? Is her motherly love suffocating Nina to a dangerous extreme?
There is also Lily (Mila Kunis), a beautiful dancer at the company who befriends Nina – and happens to have a pair of black wings tattooed on her back. Lily is carefree and open, sexually liberated and impetuous – all the qualities Nina needs to find in herself to properly play the role. But is Lily a real person, or just an extrapolation of whom Nina longs to be? Does she envy or hate her? Does Lily even exist?
Aronofsky resorts to hoary tricks in Black Swan, such as the symbolic use of color (pay attention to who is always dressed in black, for example) or the sudden, shocking hallucination (like Nina picking at her cuticle and tearing off a chunk of her finger). But they’re all in the service of a unique and feverish vision, one that is influenced by The Red Shoes as much as Repulsion. Rarely have mental disorders been portrayed so spectacularly, or with such suspense. It is impossible to predict what is going to happen in Black Swan, because the film is unfolding through the eyes of a most unreliable narrator who can’t separate real from imagined.
Portman, saddled with the near-impossible role of an impenetrable heroine we must care for without ever coming close to understanding, delivers career-high work here: Black Swan wouldn’t work without her performance, a combination of profound vulnerability and frightened bewilderment. But is there something darker lurking underneath? Aronofsky sometimes makes things visually literal, like when Nina’s eyes turn blood red, or a startling physical transformation that is beautiful and horrifying at the same time. The sound design is just as critical, like the erotic moan faintly heard when Nina opens a tube of luscious red lipstick.
There’s a touch of Mulholland Drive in the film’s refusal to close all its circles, and this kind of storytelling is not for everyone. But Aronofsky takes some huge artistic risks here, with Portman at his side, and they pay off with haunting, unnerving effect. Elegant, perverse and frightening, Black Swan is understandably a love-hate proposition. But either way, prepare to be thinking about it for days.
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenwriters: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Producers: Scott Franklin, Mark Medavoy, Arnold Messer
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 108 minutes. Vulgar language, strong sexual content, drug use, violence, gore, adult themes. Opens Dec. 17 at area theaters.