Darren Aronofsky’s voyeuristic psychological thriller, Black Swan, about an upstart prima ballerina’s descent into madness employs the same subjective dancer’s point of view that gave The Red Shoes its sense of frenetic authenticity.
Natalie Portman gives the most dazzling performance of her career as Nina, a ballet dancer consumed with proving to her manipulative choreographer that she is capable of possessing the duality of the Swan Queen role in his version of Swan Lake as both the innocent White Swan and the erotically possessed Black Swan.
The ubiquitous Vincent Cassel dominates in his role as New York City Ballet choreographer Thomas Leroy whose proclivity for sleeping with his lead dancers is widely known. Leroy bullies, neglects and seduces Nina into expanding the mental and physical boundaries set in stone by her neurotic mother (Barbara Hershey).
It comes as a shock when Cassel’s Leroy gives Nina a homework assignment to go home and “touch herself” as a backdoor into the mentality of the Black Swan. Aronofsky takes the opportunity to detonate the film’s most shocking revelation as Nina masturbates on her bed in the relative privacy of her room. The filmmaker captures a shocking nightmare moment of performance anxiety crossed with the intrinsic embarrassment of a rehearsal process that inhabits every molecule of Nina’s being. It’s an unforgettable scene that marks our unreliable protagonist as the victim of a volatile structure from which there is no escape.
Nina still lives at home with mom in their Manhattan apartment. In this dysfunctional setting, echoes of Carrie reverberate along with abstract corporeal elements that tip toward Cronenberg’s cinema-of-the-body surrealism. Portman’s estimable abilities as a ballet dancer give the film a foundation of disciplined substance that Aronofsky liberally attacks with brushstrokes of subliminal menace.
As is the habit of ballet dancers, Nina is compulsive about her art. At home her mother continually prompts her about her obligations to dance. At her Lincoln Center residence, Nina feels threatened by the other dancers in the corp. Lilly (Mila Kunis) poses the most direct threat to Nina’s tenuous grip on the Black Swan role that she fights to keep. The lesser-trained Lilly is certainly better equipped to play the sexually omnivorous part, but is perhaps too worldly to embody the White Swan purity that Nina effortlessly possesses.
Regardless of how much or how hard she rehearses, Nina is dislocated from her body and from the latent power of her erotically charged imagination. Perpetual bloody scratches on her shoulder blade signify an inner demon attempting to claim its latest victim. An impulsive decision to go out clubbing with her rival Lilly on the night before the opening performance puts Nina in a drugged-out state that allows for a reverie of lesbian attraction. Flashes of Rosemary’s Baby arise when paranoid Nina is challenged over whether the Sapphic event was real or not. Indeed, the sex scene brims with an exotic sense of vertigo that sticks in the viewer’s mind like a mirage of palpable narcotic fantasy.
Leroy instructs Nina that “The only person standing in your way is you.” The line serves as an inciting challenge that puts Nina in a private ring with the repressed desires she has funneled into dance all her life. In her determination to embody the Black Swan, Nina becomes lost in a maze of her own mysterious design. More than anything, she wants to martyr herself for her art in a way that will obliterate all notion of any dancer who has come before or after her.
Black Swan comes at a troubled economic time in America when culture has been relegated to the same dust bins that hold the shredded bits of legislative truth that once protected it. Artistic passion has become an unaffordable luxury. To dream of art is to dream of death. But you can’t help feeling that Portman’s mythological Black Swan represents a Phoenix whose rebirth will be nothing short of magnificent.
Black Swan ★★★★☆