Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers
Mila Kunis as Lily
Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy
Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers
Winona Ryder as Beth Macintyre
Benjamin Millepied as David
Ksenia Solo as Veronica
Kristina Anapau as Galina
Janet Montgomery as Madeline
Sebastian Stan as Andrew
Toby Hemingway as Tom
Sergio Torrado as Sergio
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is part of Lincoln Center’s prestigious ballet company, and when she scores the coveted role of the Swan Queen in their season opening production of “Swan Lake,” she is pushed harder by the company’s lecherous director (Vincent Cassel), while also dealing with an overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) and a new dancer (Mila Kunis) whom Nina thinks wants her role.
While Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” got a lot of attention for its comeback performance by Mickey Rourke, the director’s follow-up, a psychological thriller set in the competitive world of ballet, delivers a similarly layered performance by Natalie Portman while also playing around in a new genre for the filmmaker.
From the very moment we meet Portman’s character, Nina, she seems to be physically falling apart from the stress of her job, pushing herself to be good enough to move up the ranks at the company. Her pressures are compounded when the company’s director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces that he plans to open the season with a revolutionary “Swan Lake” with one dancer playing both the White and Black Swan, and Nina decides to do whatever it takes to prove she deserves the role, even though he claims she’s too uptight and stiff to pull it off. The pressures on Nina start to get to her as outside influences start stirring her paranoia from the overbearing nature of her mother, played by Barbara Hershey, the lecherous director’s advances and a free-spirited newcomer to the company, Lilly, played by Mila Kunis, who Nina thinks is after her role. As the director pushes Nina’s inhibitions, Lilly decides to help with that, though Nina doesn’t think she can trust the friendly newcomer.
While comfortably treading in genre territory, Aronofsky has still managed to create a richly-layered film, one that’s just as much about the conflict between the character’s personalities as it is about the psychological pressures Nina undergoes while trying to raise her game. Reuniting with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who shot his first few movies, Aronofsky is able to achieve another visually masterful film, greatly appreciated after the low-fi approach taken with “The Wrestler.” While erotically-charged thrillers are nothing new–”Black Swan” certainly feels like De Palma at times—Aronofsky fills it with the type of dark humor he’s so cleverly snuck into all his earlier work, though one might have to be slightly twisted to appreciate some of it. The film’s erotic scenes, some of the most sexual moments you’re likely to see on screen this year, are tempered with an intelligence and a feeling of authenticity to the world that keeps “Black Swan” from turning into mere Cinema wank-fodder, while still keeping it sexy and sensuous.
The tension escalates throughout the second half as Nina is driven further and further into dark places, including a few chilling encounters with the company’s departing veteran Beth, played by Winona Ryder, who has gone off the bend after being retired. As this stress starts to get Nina, she starts going through a transformation, one that will leave you wondering how much is really happening and how much is in her head right up until the end.
Portman is just amazing in this film, both in her ability to perform the dance moves required to add credibility to the role, but also pulling off an amazing transformation, starting as a woman who lacks confidence and self-esteem at times but then changing into something so different from anything we’ve seen her play, it’s quite jarring. There are quite a few intentional parallels drawn between the characters of the movie and those in “Swan Lake” as Nina essentially is the graceful swan changing into something far darker in response to the mostly self-induced pressure.
With many great performances in classic French crime-thrillers behind him, Vincent Cassel gives his strongest English performance as the director, a role he seems to relish almost a little too much. Barbara Hershey’s welcome return to the screen shows she hasn’t lost a beat as she begins her 4th decade as an actress playing a mother every bit as real as Ellen Burstyn in “Requiem for a Dream.” As much as this is Portman’s show, both of them deserve to be recognized for what they bring to the mix. Similarly, Mila Kunis’ Lilly provides such an amazing contrast to the uptight Nina. As much as Nina sees her as the competition and therefore the antagonist, seeing how much happier and free-spirited she is while she’s dancing makes you wonder who the real enemy is.
When it delves into the thriller aspects is where it sometimes gets a little silly like when paintings on the wall start talking to Nina, thought it fits into the genre nature of the film of what otherwise could have been handled like a fairly straight-ahead character drama. Otherwise, not wanting to give away too many of the twists and turns, the fact that “Black Swan” can pull you into this unfamiliar world and keep you gripped to your seat with sequences that are shocking and gorgeous at the same time gives you a fairly clear idea that Aronofsky has made another brilliant film.
The Bottom Line:
Darren Aronofsky tackles this psychological thriller with the same attention to character as he did with “The Wrestler” and the same visual panache as “The Fountain” and “Requiem for a Dream.” As masterfully-crafted as “Black Swan” is, it’s still very much Natalie Portman’s performance as a ballerina pushed to the very edges of sanity that makes the film absolutely unforgettable.