Early in Black Swan, the new drama from Darren Aronofsky, the director of a New York City ballet company announces to his dancers that their next production will be Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Yes, he knows everyone’s already seen it, but not like this. This, he says, will be visceral. By the time the closing credits roll, audiences would be hard-pressed not to take that declaration as Aronofsky’s own.
Black Swan is both an adaptation of Swan Lake, in which the performers in the ballet play out corresponding roles in the film, and the story of an artist/athlete who pushes herself to the limit for her craft (as well as for her mother and her “coach”). Neither is a particularly original tale. But as in ballet, that’s hardly the point. Black Swan’s execution is near-flawless and imbued with kinetic, violent grace. Downward pointed toes take up the whole screen, their joints cracking in your ears. The floorboards bend against the pressure. You haven’t seen ballet like this.
Protagonist Nina Sayer’s (Natalie Portman) life, like her body, is thinned down to nothing but the jagged essentials, existing solely for performing ballet. But Portman’s portrayal of Nina is anything but minimalist; she delivers a performance so intense that it feels weird to call it nuanced. And Portman’s pirouettes aren’t only metaphorical, either; she’s learned ballet well enough, at least, to express Nina’s emotional trajectory through the movement of her legs and the stiffness of her spine. Living under the thumb of her over-caring mother, a failed dancer and Nina’s only — much too intimate — companion, in her pink childhood room that’s filled with stuffed animals, it’s clear how much Nina’s sacrificed for her profession. But her meekness makes unclear just what motivates her: ambition and love of her art, or fear of disappointing her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey, adding another unforgettable mother to Aronofsky’s body of work) and the director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel).
Fortunately, her discipline pays off, and Thomas offers her the part of the virginal Swan Queen, the star role of Tchaikovsky’s ballet. But there’s a catch. Whoever plays the Swan Queen also plays the Black Swan, the Queen’s worldly, sensual double, who competes with the Swan Queen for her suitor’s love. The dedication that’s made Nina perfect for the one role has cost her the life experience and the disposition that would make her perfect for the other. Thomas (a.k.a. The Suitor) makes these deficiencies painfully clear, in his dickishly patronizing way. But he also prods her to open up her passionate, unrestrained insides, his efforts always blurring the distinction between helping her become a truly great performer and preying on the hunger and vulnerability of a pretty dancer who might be eager to please.
And like any good pleaser, Nina does set out to become perfect, in spite of how much of an effort opening up is for her. Thankfully, her route is circuitous enough to mostly skirt the yin-yang dichotomies this setup begs for (even if it does involve a predictable all-nighter with ecstasy and strobe lights). When the Black Swan to Nina’s White appears, in the form of the effortless, relaxed dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), the two characters never feel like polar opposites. In part, that’s because we’re never quite sure what’s really Lily and what’s Nina’s own delusions, as her personality begins to disintegrate and Aronofsky steps up the (impressively disturbing) special effects. Nina’s own face, her double, stares back at her from paintings, Lily, and mirrors. Young plumage breaks her skin. Feathers ensue.
Shot, mostly, from Nina’s not-entirely-reliable perspective, it’s easy to get lost in her vision of the world, figuring out what’s real and what’s not. But despite how entrancing the film’s psychology is, this is still a ballet dually performed, both as a dance and as its dancers’ lives. Why decide between the two? After all, Aronofsky hasn’t.
Mirroring Nina, his camera walks a careful line between precision and passion, between meaning and just movement. Black Swan is his most deliberate, precise film, yet also his most unrestrained. It would seem as though the film’s on a quest to be perfect, too, which might explain the only chink in its armor of plumage: an ending that’s simply too well-designed. But maybe that small sabotage is by design, too — showing us, as Nina eventually does, the price to be paid for perfection.