Who’s In It: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder
The Basics: Ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has been training for stardom her whole life, coached to the point of obsession by her stern stage mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a failed former dancer. When Nina lands the lead in her company’s new production of Swan Lake, she’s ecstatic – but the virginal, fragile young ingénue can’t seem to nail the part’s dual role of the sensual Black Swan. Enter Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina’s rival and understudy, who embodies everything Nina isn’t, seems to be sleeping with the director (Vincent Cassel), and may or may not be slowly driving Nina to the brink of insanity.
What’s The Deal: Darren Aronofsky, who most recently directed Mickey Rourke to an Oscar nomination in the gritty drama The Wrestler, returns to the arena of performers and body horror with this darkly sensual thriller set in the world of ballet. With an eye for the precise and demanding milieu of professional dance – tutus and cracked toenails and bitter jealousies galore – he builds an increasingly claustrophobic world around Portman’s delicately nuanced performance, ratcheting up the tension with an escalating series of disorienting incidents filtered through his heroine’s eyes. By the time the truth reveals itself you may have already guessed where things were heading, but don’t hold that against the film; the fun (and the horror) is in watching Portman slowly lose what little grasp on reality she had to begin with over the course of a meticulously controlled performance that culminates in the most haunting and grandiose cinematic coup de grace of the year.
And You Thought Nothing Would Top Grown Men Rolling Around In Barbed Wire And Broken Glass: The gory match at the end of The Wrestler was an excruciating highlight of the many injuries Aronofsky has inflicted upon the protagonists of his films, but he tops himself with seemingly minor self-inflicted mutilations in Black Swan that’ll have you wincing in your seat – peeling fingers, compulsive skin scratching, and even freakier out-of-nowhere body horror shocks, not to mention the real-life physical deformations ballerinas inflict on themselves in pursuit of pretty, pirouetting perfection.
Portman In The Performance Of The Year: Obsessed with perfection, Portman’s Nina is a frigid, naive woman-child who talks in a fearful whisper and wears her repression on her sleeve – until she begins subconsciously embracing her dark side. Portman keeps a tight lid on the crazy bursting to get out, painting a picture of Nina’s inner life in moments that reveal her fragile psyche as it crumbles, bit by bit, into paranoia. By the time her inner Black Swan emerges, Portman becomes a wholly different creature – seductive, unhinged, and revelatory in her transformation.
Further Viewing On Similar Subjects: Watch the Powell and Pressburger classic The Red Shoes, arguably the best dance movie ever made and a film impossible not to think about after watching Black Swan. Also see: The competitive ballerina drama The Turning Point, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, the body-horror oeuvre of David Cronenberg, and the original Swan Lake ballet, a tragic tale of yearning in its own right.