‘Black Swan’ pirouettes off stage into a glorious insanity
Point. Snap. Break.
In this order, “Black Swan” creates a lush, cunning, psychotic look into the psyche of a ballerina dangling dangerously close to the precipice of insanity. Fighting doppelgängers, hallucinations and her own insecurities, Nina (Natalie Portman in a smashing, gut-wrenching, award-winning performance) slowly descends into the dark recesses of her increasingly unhinged mind, leaving the audience wondering what’s real and what’s just a figment of her imagination.
“Black Swan,” directed by Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler,” “Requiem for a Dream”) follows the story of “Swan Lake” in general, gradually demented strokes. It opens with the director of a New York ballet company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel, “Ocean’s 13”), announcing the new season will open with “Swan Lake.” Not just any rendition of it, though, but a stripped-down, “visceral and real” version of the classic. So, in classic diva style, he drops his prima ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder, “The Dilemma”), and picks Nina to be both the swan queen and her villainous black twin. The catch here is that while Nina is the swan queen incarnate (timid, innocent, virginal), she cannot summon the dark creature that is the black swan. Thomas pushes her to her limit, demanding a seductress, a temptress from a woman who still has stuffed animals in her bedroom. To make matters worse, Thomas hires Lilly (Mila Kunis in a breakout performance), a tattooed ingenue who presents a loose-limbed, smoky eyed threat to Nina’s tightly wound virtue. From here, Nina further slips into her own neurosis until the film’s jaw-dropping conclusion.
Even from the beginning, it’s easy to discern Nina is a nervous breakdown just waiting to happen. Sheltered from the world in a protective cocoon, she lives in a bubble of utter naivety, more a child than an adult. Her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey, “Love Comes Lately”) only exacerbates the problem, smothering her daughter in a truly creepy fashion that makes you want to scream. (The phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is an apt description.) Even before she was cast for the part of swan queen, Nina already had mental issues, including being obsessive and compulsively (and unknowingly) scratching herself to the point of tearing through her skin. And no matter how beautiful and skilled she is, it still is disturbing to see her strip a piece of skin from her finger as if it were commonplace to do so. And once Lily arrives on the scene, effortlessly impressing everyone with her natural skill, Nina goes from merely crazy to being deadly paranoid that Lily is after her prima spot.
Aronofsky manages to take the classical standards of ballet films — the lyricism, determination and competition — and twist them into a brutal horror show. He shows a world of unbridled narcissism, with mirrors reflecting everywhere. He combines Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ballet masterpiece, “The Red Shoes,” and the pair’s “Black Narcissus” in a truly gritty, nearly sleazy way. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s a pleasant surprise to see someone take a jab at the normally revered world of ballet and pull black the heavy curtain and show you the brutally hard work and back-breaking sacrifices that go into such beautiful dances. You see the minutiae: the cracked toes, the sweat-soaked clothing, the finger-induced vomiting. The world of ballet is just a veneer to Aronofsky, and he makes no apologies for showing the audience what hides beneath that cultured facade.
“Black Swan” is equal parts seduction and repellent, masterfully mixed into a film that makes you cringe but leaves you unable to draw away your gaze. Similar to the new version of “Swan Lake” that Thomas creates, “Black Swan” is visceral and real, even if it’s a mind-shattering swan dive well past the brink of insanity.
Five stars of five, and a critic’s pick.