Nothing will cure a foot fetish faster than a ballerina’s toes. Gnarly and noisy with split nails and cracking knuckles, they’re relentlessly pivoted and propped upon by Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers as she rehearses tirelessly in front of mirrors at home and at the ballet studio.
But believe it or not, her feet get off comparatively easy in Darren Aronofsky’s delirious Black Swan, a giddy, sickly comic phantasmagoria that flirts with ridiculousness on its way to the sublime. It’s either the awesomest stupid movie or the stupidest awesome movie I’ve seen all year—but semantic distinctions fall away when you’re caught up in its headlong rush.
Portman’s Nina is an aging bit player in a cut-throat Manhattan ballet company. Somewhere in her mid-20s, she lives in a state of perpetual arrested development in a cramped apartment with her hyperattentive gargoyle Stage Mommy (Barbara Hershey). Nina sleeps in a bedroom lined with stuffed animals, and after rehearsals she falls asleep to the tinkle of a pink music box.
Unsurprisingly, as this is a Darren Aronofsky movie, there’s some strange stuff swimming around under these apparently still waters. A stressed-out bulimic, Nina is prone to unconscious self-harm like scratching herself bloody and tearing up her cuticles, and freaks out over even the thought of eating cake with frosting. Portman’s shockingly gaunt frame is a testament to the dancer’s almost psychotic discipline, and Aronofsky films it with the same pitiless Passion of the Christ rigor he used to document Mickey Rourke’s brutal physical conditioning in The Wrestler.
When the company’s prima ballerina is deemed over the hill, the despot director (Vincent Cassel, leading with his crotch), announces that Nina will replace her as the lead in their upcoming production of Swan Lake, in the roles of both the virginal white swan and her seductive dark counterpart. It’s the dual role of a lifetime—every dancer’s dream. And that’s when she comes undone.
Much like the actress playing her, Nina has no trouble with angelic. It’s the dirty parts that trip her up. The first of Black Swan’s many nifty metatextual flourishes is that Portman suffers from a parallel dilemma, having skyrocketed to fame as a precocious child actress only to falter now that it’s come time for adult roles. Aronofsky in fact conceived the role of Nina with Portman in mind, and it’s impossible to imagine another contemporary actress of her age group being so believable while sleeping in a doll-lined child’s bedroom.
Crippled with anxiety, Nina is tormented by the constant, friendly taunting of her alternate, Lily (Mila Kunis), a sloppy, naturally gifted new rival who exudes an earthy, effortless sexuality. Kunis is a neat physical match for Portman (and also lost a somewhat disturbing amount of weight for the role), yet her relaxed, husky-voiced comfort with herself couldn’t be more opposite. (She also has a really hot tattoo.)
Down the rabbit hole we go, with Aronofsky’s subjective camera keeping us hard-wired into Sayers’ panicked hallucinations and hormonal frenzies. There’s more than a bit of Sapphic longing bottled up inside that rigid repression, and at its best Black Swan hits the giddy, leering heights of ’70s-era Brian DePalma pictures, slack-jawed at the terrors of female sexuality. (This film features, hands down, the scariest masturbation scene since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Don’t even get me started on the cunnilingus sound effects.)
We get a first-person view of Nina’s escalating mania, thanks to Aronofsky’s dizzying technique. Keeping his camera in claustrophobically close to his heroine, the director cuts and jumps while cranking up the Grand Guginol music cues. Sets designed with relentless walls of mirrors hammer home the doppelganger themes, allowing no end to the visual mischief within the overlaid images. Shot on 16mm by the brilliant cinematographer Matthew Libatique, the film’s palette retreats into high-contrast blacks, whites and blood-reds as we descend into chaos.
A movie geek’s playground, Black Swan is dripping with allusions and in-jokes. Most screamingly obvious are Powell’s and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, Argento’s Suspiria, Polanski’s Repulsion, and especially Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz—which Aronofsky also pillaged for his (awful) Requiem For a Dream. Among the countless DePalma references mentioned earlier, Hershey practically channels Piper Laurie in Carrie as the Evil Mommy.
But what’s it all about? Aye, there’s the rub. There are at least a dozen academic interpretations one can foist upon Black Swan, but most of them feel tedious and sophomoric. The brilliant stunt casting of Winona Ryder as Portman’s cruelly deposed predecessor suggests one might read the film as a metaphor for the brutal way Hollywood starlets are used up and tossed aside. It also works as an eerie, distaff response to The Wrestler, as yet another stunted protagonist all but crucifies herself in pursuit of a moment of transcendence in front of an audience.
Anyway, any first-year grad student could bullshit an entire paper off of the film’s use of mirrors alone, and I’m so not looking forward to the inevitable inane online discussions about “what actually happens” in this movie. Instead, why not just approach it as a dance? Give yourself over to the sounds and the music, and become overwhelmed by the precision and technique. Nina would have wanted it that way.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel
Running time: 107 minutes