Let’s be honest, there aren’t many ballet-centric films out there and even fewer that are good, with notable exceptions like The Red Shoes (1948) and the underrated Robert Altman film The Company (2003). So Darren Aronofsky had his work cut out for him with Black Swan (2010), a ballet film reimagined as a psychological horror tale reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s early work. Aronofsky is a filmmaker that strives to make genres his own – edgy science fiction (Pi) and a gritty sports film (The Wrestler). He even incorporated aspects of the horror genre in his harrowing adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). Black Swan tackles the genre head-on with the kind of intensity we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker.
In a bold move, Aronofsky cast Natalie Portman, an actress known mostly for appealing characters in films like Where the Heart Is (2000) and Garden State (2004), against type as an aspiring yet psychologically conflicted ballerina trying to land the part in a production of Swan Lake. However, the gamble paid off in a big way as she delivered a complex, powerful performance that garnered a multitude of awards, most notably the Oscar for Best Actress.
A New York ballet company’s lecherous director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces that his take on Swan Lake is going to be a stripped down and visceral affair. He’s looking for a fresh new face to play both the Black and White Swan, which doesn’t sit too well with veteran ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) who is effectively pushed out, or “retired,” at the beginning of the film in order to make room for aspiring dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). She is eager to get the role but not only has to battle her own self-doubts but strong competition from rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), a newcomer from San Francisco who is everything Nina isn’t: confident and uninhibited. Nina has her technique down cold but she lacks Lily’s passion and the ability to lose herself in the role.
Early on, we see the cracks beginning to show in Nina’s façade. Near a subway stop she passes someone on the street that looks exactly like her. At home, she notices a strange, small rash on her back. Are these symptoms of stress or something else more sinister? As if she didn’t have enough pressure, her overbearing stage mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) treats her daughter like she’s still a little girl. This extends to the décor in Nina’s bedroom – awash in pink and populated with stuffed animals. When she’s not painting creepy portraits of her daughter, Erica tries to control every moment of Nina’s home life. However, Nina is able to escape her clutches once she starts hanging out with Lily. The rival dancer takes Nina for a walk on the wild side, giving her drugs and taking her clubbing, which loosens up her inhibitions and that’s only for starters.
Like he did with The Wrestler (2008), Aronofsky shows us the tricks of the trade, the minutia dancers do, like how they break in a new pair of dancing slippers or tape up their ankles and feet in preparation. He also shows the punishment Nina’s body takes from dancing – she is scarily thin, has busted toe nails, endures a seemingly endless number of rehearsals, and pushes herself to the point of exhaustion.
Initially, Natalie Portman plays the prim and proper character we’ve seen her do before but the actress soon reveals Nina to be a deeply flawed person gradually coming apart at the seams as she tries to cope with the pressure of taking on the lead role in a high profile production. Portman displays some serious acting chops as she brilliantly conveys the mental disintegration of her character. The actress gives all sorts of intriguing nuances that make us wonder just how much of what is happening to her is real or in her head. She commits herself to the role completely and this is particular evident in the climactic sequence where Nina finally performs Swan Lake in front of an audience on opening night.
As if casting Portman was a risk, in comes That ‘70s Show’s Mila Kunis. Now, she’s shown her “serious” acting chops in Max Payne (2008), but the jump from a supporting role in that film to a much more substantial supporting role in Black Swan is a quantum leap for the actress. Vincent Cassel plays a Svengali-like ballet director who pushes Nina by manipulating her emotions and playing on her insecurities about the Black Swan role. Winona Ryder has a juicy role as a disgruntled aging dancer on her way out. She has a memorable scene in which she confronts Nina in a boozy, vengeful haze. There is a delicious irony here as in real life Portman now gets the high profile leading roles that Ryder used to get in the 1990’s.
Black Swan is reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) in that they all depict a protagonist’s nightmarish descent into madness. Aronofsky’s film is a terrific showcase for Portman’s talents, challenging her like no other role before as she finally fulfills the promise showed very early on in her career with Leon: The Professional (1994). For Aronofsky, he only improves as a filmmaker, adding another self-destructive protagonist to his roster. He has arguably made his best film to date and it should be interesting to see what he does next.
“Black Swan Metamorphosis” is a three-part making of documentary about the film that can be viewed separately or altogether. There is all kinds of fascinating, fly-on-the-wall, on-set footage showing several scenes being shot. Various crew members talk about their respective roles in the production. This doc provides some insight on how they shot Black Swan on a small budget with little time. Natalie Portman talks about the rigorous training schedule she went through in order to pull off the dance sequences. This is quite a good look at various aspects of the production.