Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a suspenseful masterpiece of body horror and paranoia set in the rigorous world of the New York Ballet as the company rehearses a new, "stripped down, visceral" rendition of Swan Lake.
We follow Nina, a technically brilliant but emotionally timid ballerina with the company. She lives with her mother (herself a retired dancer), does no socializing, and thinks only of dancing. Nina has built and perfected her ballet technique over the years while letting all other parts of her life atrophy and slough away. She is ballet.
Two things fall into Nina's world to challenge her. One is the prospect of being cast as both the white and black swans in the company's upcoming show. The other is Lily, an imperfect but free-spirited newcomer. Thomas, the director of the ballet, subtly casts envy in Nina's mind for Lily's apparent effortlessness and ease of expression, which Nina has yet to attain. So begins a psychological character study that skillfully descends into the most terrifying depths of Nina's fragile, beleaguered psyche.
As Nina, Natalie Portman just might be giving the performance of her life. Her voice is a brittle leaf in the wind. When confronted with embarrassment or ridicule (which happens often), her face struggles to mask the crippling blow to her self esteem; the heartbreaking way Portman renders Nina in the first act of film is impressive on its own, but not until our consummate ballerina begins her slide into madness does the portrayal become truly masterful. Oh, and not to mention that the actress does 95% of her own dancing, and believably at that.
As opening night draws closer, the pressure mounts and the terror builds. Nina has nowhere to turn for comfort, not to her director, not to her mother, and certainly not to her fellow dancers, who belittle each other at every opportunity. This is rare in cinema story-telling - a protagonist with no safe place to land, no port in the storm. We feel that same hopelessness, that same despair. It gets under the skin.
Black Swan feels like a culmination of everything Aronofsky has made thus far; there is the paranoid psycho-drama of Pi and Requiem for a Dream, the elegance of The Fountain, and quite a bit of the deep character study that The Wrestler did so well. The film also evolves into a very loose adaptation of Swan Lake, with it's story of seduction, rivalry, and chaste beauty vs. lustful passion. Long-time Aronofsky composer Clint Mansell even lets Tchaikovsky's opus seep into the score. And the cinematography by Matthew Libatique (also an Aronofsky veteran) dances with the actors, at times caressing them and at others mercilessly cornering them. The film and the 19th century ballet feed off each other; there are no islands in the arts. Aronosfky knows this, and it show.