It didn't occur to me until I sat watching the end credits of Black Swan that Darren Aronofsky's movies to date have all shared a common theme. From Pi to The Wrestler, Requiem For A Dream to The Fountain, and now Black Swan, Aronofsky makes films about people who are consumed by their passions, their desires, or their fears. In a way, he's been making the same movie over and over from the start. But that doesn't stop each one from being fascinating on their own, and Black Swan is no exception.
Natalie Portman plays NIna Sayers, a ballet dancer with a New York company. She lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey), who attends to her every need, even clipping her nails. The lead dancer in the company is Beth (Winona Ryder), but she's getting old, so the company's director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), decides it's time for a new lead. Nina dares to hope that she's good enough to play the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, the classic Tchaikovsky ballet, but as Thomas tells her, while she has all the attributes of the White Swan (fear, innocence, fragility), she's too controlled to play the seductive Black Swan. However, NIna perseveres, and convinces Thomas she has what it takes. However, the rehearsals are stressful, Thomas' attempts to open her up are intrusive, and everyone thinks she slept her way to the top. To make things worse, a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), has joined the troupe, and Nina can't help but think that Lily is out to get her.
Black Swan takes the newfound filmmaking freedom Aronofsky unveiled in The Wrestler and applies it to the world of fine art. In fact, in many ways, Black Swan is the flipside of The Wrestler's coin. In the previous film, Mickey Rourke was a washed up has been, stuck doing menial work at a supermarket when he's not wrestling in rec halls for a few measly bucks. In Black Swan, Natalie Portman's Nina is young and full of untapped potential. If Rourke was living in the past, then Nina is something of a perpetual adolescent. Her room is full of stuffed animals and her mother treats her like a child. Both Rourke in The Wrestler and Nina face a serious obstacle: He has a heart attack that prevents him from wrestling, and she's faced with the world of adult sexual emotions. When Thomas asks her if she enjoys sex, Nina can only blush and look away.
Aronofsky shoots the film similarly to his previous one, with plenty of shots of people's backs. There's a fine grain evident in the image as well, but Aronofsky's scaled back much of the hand-held feel, aiming for a naturalistic but stable look. And Aronofsky takes great care to fill the frame with colors and objects that give weight to Nina's fears. Mirrors appear in at least half the shots, some of them providing vital clues to NIna's state of mind. Paintings move subtly, a black swan toy sits in NIna's room, standing out amongst a sea of white stuffed animals. Nina's skin is frequently covered in goose pimples, making her look like a plucked chicken (or swan, if you will). Aronofsky doesn't differentiate between the waking world and Nina's mind, which could easily lead to confusion, but the transitions are handled wonderfully, all through NIna's point of view, making the audience as surprised as she is.
Portman lives up the potential she showed all those years ago as the impressionable child in Luc Besson's The Professional. She plays Nina as a girl on the edge, ready to split open at any moment. She's in every scene and she doesn't disappoint. Vincent Cassel is equally as compelling as the domineering Thomas, demanding more and more of his dancers. Mila Kunis mostly plays Mila Kunis, but she's good at it, and cute enough to get away with it. Barbara Hershey also layers her performance, which peels like an onion as Nina unravels. Winona Ryder isn't really in the picture enough to make an impression, making me wonder if she had more scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor.
The film reaches a thrilling, swirling climax, with Nina on stage and the adrenaline surge of her performance can be felt right across the screen. I've not felt that riveted to my seat in a theater for a long time, and Aronofsky plays things with a deft hand. He knows when to end things, as well, wasting no time in unnecessary epilogues.Black Swan is another stunning achievement in Aronofsky's continually impressive playbook, tight, engrossing, and unforgettable.