As I watched Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, I couldn’t help but think about a certain Dario Argento film, and, no, I don’t mean Suspiria. I’m actually talking about Opera, the maestro’s underrated meditation on an unknown-yet-supremely talented young performer who is given the lead role in a retelling of Verdi’s Macbeth. In both films, the ingénues replace much loved-yet-aging stars, struggle with their own personal demons, and quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the stress and responsibility such a role places upon them, but, while Argento’s movie veers into bloody giallo territory, Aronofsky’s film takes another, thoroughly more twisted route.
Nina Sayers, an emotionally stunted and sheltered young dancer, is given the opportunity of a lifetime when her dance company’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), gives her the lead in his daring new production of Swan Lake. Thomas finds Nina’s performance as the innocent White Swan entrancing, but, given that she is also expected to perform as the much more sensual Black Swan, the director instructs Nina to explore that side of herself and open herself up to her darker urges. Spurred on by his criticisms, Nina tries to embrace her sexuality, but, living under the same roof as her overbearing mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), and surrounded by relics of her childhood, she finds it impossible to let herself go, and, as a result, her performance suffers. Things are further complicated by the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), a sexy and confident dancer who not only embodies everything Lily wants to be, but is everything Thomas is looking for in a lead performer. Nina becomes convinced that Lily is trying to steal the role out from under her, and, as opening night draws near, she finds herself consumed by jealousy, rage, and paranoia in her quest to truly become the Black Swan.
Aronofsky has delivered what is, in my opinion, his most accomplished film. Here he takes the grungy, hallucinatory visual style of his feature debut, Pi, and marries it to the unflinching documentary vibe of The Wrestler, and the result is a film that is at once an erotically charged psychological thriller and
an astonishingly detailed snapshot of the life of a struggling dancer. Just as with The Wrestler, Aronofsky sweats the details, here, as we observe such routine tasks as dancers scoring the soles of their ballet slippers, taping their toes, and enduring the rigors of a typical rehearsal day. This helps to ground the film and gives the viewer a chance to identify and empathize with Nina before the rug is swept out from beneath them when the film veers into horror territory. Once there, the mood is one of constant unease and tension -a nightmare world where reality and fantasy merge and Nina quickly learns she can’t trust anything or anyone, not even herself.
Once again, Aronofsky surrounds himself with an remarkable roster of talent, including a scene-stealing Barbara Hershey, Cassel, Winona Ryder as Nina's past-her-prime predecessor, Erica Sayers, and Mila Kunis, an actress who continues to impress with each outing. As good as the supporting cast is, the success of a film like Black Swan hinges on its star, and Portman does not disappoint. She imbues Nina with a believable childlike innocence and sweetness that’s brilliantly juxtaposed by the seductive display she puts on when she “becomes” the Black Swan. It’s a fearless performance, and one in which she shows more depth and raw emotion than I thought her capable of. From the much-blogged-about masturbation and lesbian love scenes to the film’s goose bump inducing denouement, Portman puts it all out there, seemingly following the same advice her character is given in the film. It’s her best performance since her debut in The Professional, and, come awards time, I’ll be very surprised if she isn’t rewarded for it.
Black Swan is an expertly made, beautifully acted, and brutally effective psychosexual thriller that showcases both an actor and a director working at the top of their game. I knew I’d like the film as I’ve yet to see anything by Aronofsky that’s disappointed me (although The Fountain came close), but I was really pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It's a film that evokes Argento, Cronenberg, Lynch, and Tsukamoto, but is still very much Aronofsky's vision. It’s a rare thing to see horror elevated to this level, with such assured direction and bravura performances, which is why it should come as no surprise that Black Swan receives my highest recommendation.