Natalie Portman in Black Swan
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: What the world needs now is more horror movies set in the world of ballet.
Evoking some of the best of Italian giallo – where gory, grindhouse horror collided with the fine arts in such trash classics as Suspiria, Stage Fright, and Opera – Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan is a pitch-perfect psychological thriller of a style and pedigree sadly seldom seen in a world overrun with sexy supernaturals and self-referential teen slashers.
Thanks to a stunning – and at times shocking – central performance by Natalie Portman, Black Swan is an intense character study that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Aronofsky’s equally exhausting The Wrestler, which similarly put its lead through some seriously grueling paces to tell its story of fleeting dreams and destructive ambition.
But where The Wrestler cornered the market on crying men, chair-smashing, and staples to the face, Black Swan‘s feather-swept body dysmorphia and luridly fractured central psyche plants the flick squarely in the genre realm.
Which is just where we want it.
Portman – looking about 70 pounds soaking wet and as cuddly as a freshly-sharpened set of Ginsu knives – plays Nina, an ambitious dancer at Lincoln Center who desperately wants to land the dual role of the Swan Queen in the company’s new production of Swan Lake. The company’s director, Thomas (played by Vincent Cassel, dutifully bringing the smarm), tells her that while her White Swan is impeccable, she can’t pull off the unbridled sensuality and dangerous power of the Black Swan.
She sets out to prove him wrong, and feather by feather she starts to lose herself in the role.
Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman
Black Swan is one woman’s story – and appropriately, the camera is reluctant to leave her, even for a moment. In fact, it’s hesitant to even back up to let her breathe, leading to oodles of claustrophobic and emotionally intense moments as Nina stumbles her way to the spotlight, fighting off bitter ex-divas (Winona Ryder, who is given possibly the best entrance of her career here), competitive frenemies (Mila Kunis, impeccably unassuming in a cryptic and challenging role) and her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey: horrifying) along the way.
Nina is, after all, a professional dancer. And as such, her body is at the mercy forces ranging from her costumer to her dance partners to her choreographer to gravity itself. The demands and ravages of a career in ballet are presented in close-up – from cracked toenails to a physical therapist’s probing hands to the prying eyes of donors at a champagne fundraiser, a dancer’s body is never entirely her own.
Portman with Vincent Cassel
The dance scenes themselves are rapturous, both in terms of their choreography and in their filming, which is intent on Nina’s face. She is obviously overworked, overwrought and over-extended, and the camera seems intent on catching her break character – or worse.
The sustained tension that comes from watching a confessed perfectionist push herself beyond her comfort zone as she gradually unravels is wickedly invigorating – like the people who surround Nina, we are encouraged to scrutinize her every glance, each turn of her wrist. Ballet is an art form where perfection and ideal are tantamount, and the fallout from trying to achieve these goals can be devastating. Here, we’re given a front-row ticket to the show.
There are too many tiny twists and turns and sleights-of-hand to mention, but I’ll throw out a few things you can expect: Body terror. Lesbian intrigue. Doubles. Bulimic episodes. Unwanted sexual advances. Cake. I’d recommend just strapping in and enjoying the ride. Fans of the grittier side of New York City (of which Aronofsky made great use in his feature debut, Pi) will love the on-the-ground feel of the film, which might spark memories of Dressed to Kill, Rosemary’s Baby, and Eyes of Laura Mars.
While I’d technically call Black Swan more a psychological thriller than a horror movie, Aronofsky deftly jumps between elements of the related genres, and there’s much for horror fans to love here. It really does feel like a spin on some of the great old Italian slashers from the ’80s that used the fine arts as a backdrop for some seriously seedy goings-on.
Thanks to a totally committed performance by Portman (her obvious dedication to such a physical and emotionally intense role is nothing short of astonishing) and the relentless focus of its director, Black Swan is a dark and haunting masterpiece as the fairy tale at its core.
RATING (OUT OF 5):
Black Swan is Rated R for intense hallucinogenic imagery, drug use, and harm to feet.