Dances with demons: Psychological horror-thriller is a one-woman pas de deux
A dancer’s body has been described as an instrument of beauty, sculpture in motion, heaven’s architecture. Martha Graham said dance is the body’s song. In the popular imagination, a ballerina is the picture of grace, beauty, elegance, and alignment. So leave it to the director of “Requiem for a Dream’’ and “The Wrestler’’ to turn that body into a temple of doom — complete with inky feathers, a bull’s grunt, and webbed feet. To be fair, the mind in question is no pleasure garden, either.
Natalie Portman speeds around “Black Swan’’ in a state of corseted frenzy. She plays Nina, a demure but eager prima ballerina in a New York ballet company, and while the director Darren Aronofsky furnishes many scenes of Nina doing turns and grueling pointe work, what I remember most about movement in this commercially daring freak-out is all the running she does — through corridors and across Lincoln Center, with the camera at her back. It’s no running that Usain Bolt or Tom Cruise would recognize. It’s a gait of intense composure — the ballet version of a 40-yard dash.
Where Nina is so desperately rushing is a perfectionist’s masochistic paradise. But on the way, she tries to save her starring role in “Swan Lake’’ from Lily (Mila Kunis), the company’s sexy, back-tattooed new dancer. It’s that sort of movie. Some girls fight over men. Ballerinas fight over parts. But the occasional brilliance of “Black Swan’’ is that it’s a one-way fight. Nina battles herself.
In the opening minutes, Nina says she’s awoken from a dream in which she’s landed the Swan Queen role in a new production of “Swan Lake.’’ She spends the rest of the film chasing the part and defending it. Before auditions, the company’s hilariously sleazy artistic director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), explains the show to his dancers. A virgin is turned into a white swan. The love of a prince could break the spell. But a black swan seduces him away. The white swan leaps to her death. Curtains.
Thomas wants do it “stripped-down,’’ “visceral,’’ and “real.’’ As is customary, he'll have the same dancer play both swans. The movie’s innovation is to gradually assume the magic-realist moroseness of the ballet. Aronofsky’s rendition is just grislier and has more impalings.
Nina wins the part. But even then, Thomas, in his insinuating French accent, continues to beg her to tap into the Swan Queen’s dark side. It won’t be easy. Nina wears pink bouclé. She practices nonstop. She lives with her single mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), the sort of faded ballerina who had to give it all up to have Nina. Anyone who’s seen “Carrie,’’ “The Piano Teacher,’’ “Precious,’’ or Disney’s current hit, “Tangled,’’ will know the mother-daughter relationship in “Black Swan’’ is comparably loaded. When Erica evilly threatens to throw out a celebratory cake, Nina steels herself for a dreaded lick of icing. At some point, Nina tries to masturbate, and in walks mom.
Nina becomes so consumed with becoming this monster seductress that her body simply begins to turn her into one. Her skin is pimpling like a chicken’s. Her shoulder blades are scarred. Is her body repaying her for those bulimic bathroom breaks? Aronofsky situates the entire film so deeply inside Nina’s fraying psyche that we’re unsure whether to believe the figurative monsters Nina concocts. Is Erica a gorgon because that’s how Nina sees her? Is the company’s fading star (Winona Ryder) also its Norma Desmond? (Ryder now seems imprisoned in hag roles. Please, free Winona.) Is the more socially limber Lily a frenemy or just the girl with a dragon tattoo?
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin, the film works as a psychological horror-thriller about artistic obsession. Nina’s paranoia and narcissism overtake her. After a night of partying, is she making love to Lily or herself? Is she dreaming or displacing? The suspense is in waiting for an alarm to go off. It never does. That ambiguity makes what Kunis does here surprising. I don’t buy her as a ballerina. I’m not sure I buy her as an actress, either. But she’s a pungent comedian. Her sorority-girl cadence and slouchy physicality are real in a work of nasty surrealism.
The sex here (self-, same-, and otherwise) is fascinatingly complex for an American movie. So are Matthew Libatique’s gymnastic camerawork and Thérèse DePrez’s art direction, which uses cramped space, reflected surfaces, and wall-hangings to amplify Nina’s states of mind.
Aronofsky is adept at personifying what the body can take and what it can’t. Each of his films are about a kind of mystical ambition — the drive to solve an elusive number (“Pi’’), to get high (“Requiem for a Dream’’), to live forever (“The Fountain’’), to win an Oscar for Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler’’). As with those movies, “Black Swan’’ is perched on the edge of madness. If there’s a problem, it’s that it doesn’t fully succumb. Even during the trashy, illogical backstage climax, it has only one foot in the loony bin.
Still, that restraint might have actually revealed a new range in Portman. Her vestal qualities are under siege (once again), but she’s so discreetly expressive that DePrez’s illuminating décor is a bonus. Good material and a smart filmmaker have freed Portman to take chances with discretion. Her biggest risk is not going for too much. Often she’s just the back of a head or undulating arms or a visage in a mirror. But there’s inner turmoil in this performance, and Portman doesn’t need to jackhammer into it for us to feel it’s there.
You’re always afraid that the actors in an Aronofsky movie are going to fall over dead. I, at least, can’t believe Ellen Burstyn made it out of “Requiem for a Dream’’ alive. But Portman and Aronofsky are in sync. He works hard so, despite the year Portman spent in intensive training, she doesn’t appear to have to.
This isn’t terribly deep — most of the thrill is gone by a second viewing — and you can often feel Aronofsky’s exertion. But the movie looms in the memory. It’s superbly calibrated for one thing. Aronofsky uses cinema to fully inhabit a character’s kaleidoscopic ruptures. We don’t know, in “Black Swan,’’ how far inside Nina’s head we are until it’s too late. On her deathbed, the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova is said to have instructed the man upstairs to “Get my swan costume ready.’’ Nina seems poised to snatch it back.