Black Swan is some classic Darren Aronofsky crazy. If you missed the high style of Requiem for a Dream or the abstract interpretive level of The Fountain, they’re back. Yet it’s also set in a physical world like The Wrestler, so maybe I can work Pi into this comparison somehow too.
Ballet ingénue Nina (Natalie Portman) gets a big break when director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) gets tired of his old star, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder). Leroy forces Beth to retire at the ripe old age of 30-something, and he pushes Nina to give a star making performance in “Swan Lake.” A new ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis), seems like a potential rival to Nina. Then Nina starts having visions of gore and sex and just general creepiness.
The world of ballet is introduced with perfect visual storytelling. A montage of feet cracking and shoe prepping is like a sports movie. We’re in the world, enough to understand it without any blatant “this is how ballet works.”
Lily’s so rogue she seems like the ballet badass. She shows up late but has so much confidence she pulls it off. What we see of her moves are so sensual, it does seem like that’s the way the ballet industry should go. Lily is just passion, raw and natural. Kunis pulls it off even though we hardly see her actually dance.
Nina’s problem is she’s strictly performing. It’s kind of funny that Leroy is complaining she’s stuck in her structure of serious innocence. He’s basically saying, “Stop giving a Natalie Portman performance.” More than any of her performances since The Professional, we really see Portman transform into a completely different physicality by the end of the movie.
Then it goes completely off the rails. Little flourishes of sound make regular scenes shriek with intensity. Little visual effects twist regular scenes until they’re just not quite right. The effects are designed to look just a tad off enough that it freaks you out. I saw one spotty CGI tweak, but every film is allowed one.
Nina’s mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), is just off enough to be totally crazy. She makes small gestures, but they’re so wrong. Drastic gestures appear out of nowhere. There’s some gore that’s grosser than anything in Saw because it’s intimate. Leroy uses sexual manipulation as artistic direction, and damned if it doesn’t make sense as a directorial tactic.
This is one of those pure crazy movies like Jacob’s Ladder. You don’t know what you’re going to see next, you don’t know what’s real and just getting to the end is exhausting. The film leaves you drained, which is a wonderful experience to have at the movies.