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Black Swan

Natalie Portman pirouettes to the dark side in this ballet thriller

Natalie Portman and Winona Ryder in Black Swan.

When watching ballet dancers leap and spin across a stage, it’s hard to remember that these dedicated athletes punish their bodies to create such grace. Director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) is happy to remind you. His psychological dance thriller (which may be the best new genre in years) — Black Swan is awash with close-ups of battered toes, bony arms and raw bloody flesh — and that’s just the normal ballerinas. 

The real gore starts when timid, emotionally stunted Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman; Brothers) gets the opportunity to dance the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake. Raised by a failed and frighteningly unhinged former ballerina (Barbara Hershey; Albert Schweitzer) Nina’s life is a demanding routine of dance training and strict diet control. This fragile girl, who still lets mommy undress her and tuck her in, is perfect for the virginal white swan, but she lacks the sexuality to embody the dance’s villainous black swan. 

Company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel; Mesrine) attempts to sexually harass Nina into the dark side, but only adds pressure to the already frazzled girl. New dancer Lily (Mila Kunis; Forgetting Sarah Marshall), a sexually free spirit, further heaps on the pressure by capturing Thomas’s attention.

Well perfectionist Nina won’t let little things like sanity and morality get in the way of a starring role. 

As she dutifully jetes into the darker aspects of sexuality and drug abuse, sweet little Nina starts to spin away from reality. She sees doppelgangers all around her — a sexy, glowering version of herself that seems to be lurking always just over her shoulder. She also begins to see threats where there were none. 

The film follows Nina down the rabbit hole, as she systematically attacks every imperfection she finds within herself, only to create a more glaring flaw. A simple torn cuticle drives Nina to rend flesh from her hand.

But something else is happening here, too: Nina is starting to enjoy her wild side, and as she does, she starts to bloom both as a dancer and as a narcissist. Suddenly, she doesn’t need to put her hair in a tight bun, and maybe letting Thomas or Lily seduce her wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Either way, the black swan becomes far more enticing than her old white swan existence.

Aronofsky is a master of the visual and he relishes the opportunity to mix the physical horrors of a professional dance career with the beauty of ballet performance. There isn’t a split toenail or bloody heel he doesn’t capture in this gorey ode to the obsession needed to be a performer. At times he hammers the point home too hard and, I would argue, spoils his own ending by making the foreshadowing too heavy handed. But it’s hard to argue with a director that crafts ballet company drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat. 

Portman is perfect for the role of Nina, her already tiny frame and whispery baby voice projecting just how innocent and damaged this girl is. But in spite of her baby delusions, this is a girl that will accept nothing short of perfection, and she’ll do whatever it takes to achieve it. If you look hard enough, you can see the black swan beneath Portman’s sweet exterior even in the first moments of the movie — she will not be denied her chance in the spotlight.

The real surprise in Black Swan is Mila Kunis, who must play the dual role of actual dancer Lily and Nina’s delusion of Lily. She handles both roles and acts as a barometer for the audience, helping us to distinguish reality from Nina’s twisted hallucinations. 

Overall, the film achieves a melodramatic perfection that would appease even Nina’s exacting standards.

Great Ballet Thriller • R • 108 mins.