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Drugs, death, numbers…and ballerinas? Darren Aronofsky has trafficked in cinematic mindfucks before, trippily dealing with the three former subjects in Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Pi. Then he deviated from his script with 2008’s The Wrestler, trading paranoia and surreality for a heartfelt and realistic portrait of an athlete past his prime. You might therefore expect his latest, Black Swan, to follow suit—but then the delusions kick in, bodies morph, blood gushes, and you realize you’re not exactly in for Mickey Rourke in a tutu.
Natalie Portman turns in a remarkable performance as Nina, a dancer with a fictional New York City ballet troupe who embodies her mother’s favorite term of endearment: “sweet girl.” She’s an excellent ballerina, though one who prefers precision to passion, which makes it look as if she’s going to fail to nab the lead in her company’s dark, reworked production of Swan Lake. Indeed, it goes to someone else—until Nina bites her instructor, Thomas (Vincent Cassel, finally with a bit of hero mixed into his inherent villainy), when he kisses her. That’s just the hint of danger he was looking for, the proof that Nina may be able to convince as the ballet’s Black Swan as well as its White. She gets the part, and the hissing from corps begins.
Soon Thomas isn’t thrilled, either. Nina still proves stiff and virginal in rehearsals, despite teacher’s attempts to pry her open about sex with questions about her experiences and homework to touch herself. There are other pressures, from Beth (Winona Ryder), the company’s star, who isn’t happy about a forced retirement, and from Lily (Mila Kunis, terrifically sensual), a new dancer, who is everything Nina’s not. And Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey) is the invasive, overprotective sort, insisting on examining her daughter’s every wound (she has a habit of scratching herself under stress) and asking after her when, say, she takes too long in the bathroom. Soon Nina is seeing her mother, and sometimes herself, in the corners of rooms or hovering above her in the bath. And that scratch on her back gets worse, spreading and bleeding until tiny lumps begin to appear.
When Nina or her mother cuts her nails, they inevitably draw blood. Much of Black Swan is squeamishly visceral, from the cracks in Nina’s neck and feet while she’s stretching to close-ups of her battered toes or a hangnail that she pulls halfway up her finger. This isn’t a pretty portrait of ballet, but of the ugliness of what comes before a perfect, ethereal performance: The buckled feet. The muscle strains. The need to go over choreography again and again and again until even the piano player gives up, bitterly remarking that he has a life. Thomas is constantly in Nina’s face, literally at the studio and figuratively when she’s at home, beating herself up for not living up to his expectations. Physically and psychologically, her journey is brutal.
As the pressure further bears down on Nina, Black Swan becomes more surreal and wonderfully twisted, with Aronofsky and his trio of scripters journeying into the cobwebby corners of an increasingly demented mind. Throughout, the camera swirls around the performers along with the music, which does the double duty of adding momentum and obscuring any technical faults of the actresses, though Portman and Kunis do lovely, convincing work. (Their characters’ love-hate dynamic offstage is a treat, too.) Ballet eye-rollers, don’t stay away from Black Swan for fear of boredom. It’s as gripping a story as any you’ll see this year, a fitting addition to Aronofsky’s oeuvre.