“I never see you lose yourself.”
The body wasn’t made for ballet. Injuries to the feet, ankles, calves, knees, hips, ribs, and spine are part and parcel of this demanding art. But the pains dancers suffer, no matter how excruciating, are, accepting the central premise of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, nothing compared to what ballet does to the mind.
As a follow-up to The Wrestler, his successful, conventional, and humane take on pro wrestling, Aronofsky turns his lens to the refined, formal, recondite world of ballet. The main character of Black Swan is Nina Sayers, an ingénue in the corps portrayed by an anorexic but gorgeous Natalie Portman, who does most of her own dancing and embraces her role with surprising ferocity. Nina is plucked from obscurity by the ballet’s director, the always excellent Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy — who is one part taskmaster, one part leering Svengali, and one part George Balanchine — and he’s chosen Nina to dance the starring role in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The prima ballerina Nina is replacing is the faded and troublesome Beth Macintyre, a welcome return to form for Winona Ryder, who plays the dissolute dancer by diving headfirst into a grab-bag of horror show effects.
Although Thomas is offering Nina the opportunity of a lifetime, he has doubts (“I never see you lose yourself,” he tells her) as to her ability to portray both sides of the Swan Queen: the White Swan, representing innocence, purity, and all that is good, the qualities Nina possesses; and the Black Swan, representing the shadowy and sinister elements Nina seems to lack. Nina’s attempts to get in touch with her dark side are the deus in Aronofsky’s machina and include drinking, drugs, autoeroticism, lesbianism, and self-mutilation — in other words, a little something for everyone.
Barbara Hershey, with her jaw clenched and veins popping, delivers a chilling and vulnerable performance as Erica Sayers, Nina’s stage mother from hell, herself a failed dancer living her thwarted dreams through the aspirations of her daughter. And Mila Kunis as the tempestuous Lily is the perfect foil for Portman’s wan striver. Lily is pulsing with life — too bad she isn’t pulsing with technique: the little dancing we see Kunis undertake is embarrassing — and she embodies, literally and figuratively, the darkness, and overripe sexuality, Nina needs to embrace if she’s to satisfy the implacable Thomas and her own sense of what it means to be the perfect Swan Queen.
Black Swan echoes other backstage, rags-to-riches films like A Star Is Born and All About Eve just as it echoes films on ballet like The Red Shoes and Turning Point. But Black Swan sets itself apart by abandoning verisimilitude in favor of doppelgangers, improbabilities of plot, and enough blood and gore to please all but the most anti-balletomane of filmgoers.
Subtlety may not be Aronofsky’s strong suit, but he’s a superb filmmaker with a signature style and a real gift for raising one’s pulse. Black Swan is beautifully filmed by Matthew Libatique. And Tchaikovsky’s score, a chestnut among warhorses, is as familiar as it is lovely. But Black Swan is no mousy film on dance. It’s a psychosexual thriller that, however satisfying, is no more about ballet than Psycho is about grand larceny or Cujo is about leash laws.