Natalie Portman plays Nina, a professional ballet dancer in New York. She's been with the company for a long time, and you get the impression that if she were going to break out and get lead roles it would have happened by now. It's not that she's not a good dancer - she has great skill and technique - but she's not a Star. Still, when the company's prima ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder) is pressured into retirement, the director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) needs a new face. He picks out a few girls to audition for his reimagining of Swan Lake, and he is going to pick one girl to play the dual role of the White Swan and the Black Swan. He tells Nina, in as many words, that if he were only casting the White Swan it would be hers. But the Black Swan is supposed to seduce the Prince, and he doesn't see the seductress in her at all. She manages to persuade him, however, during a private moment in his office, and she gets the one role every ballet dancer dreams of.
The problem, though, is that her persuasive moment in Thomas's office, was just that - a moment. She knows the steps, but she can't find the inner siren, no matter how impatient Thomas gets with her (or how many times he tries to kiss and grope her and bring that out of her again). Meanwhile, there's a new girl in the company named Lily (played by Mila Kunis). She's everything that Nina is not - she's confident and sexy but lacking in technique, she's got an attitude, she smokes, she eats hamburgers, she's frequently late for rehearsal, etc. Thomas points Lily out to Nina, though, as an example of the passion he wants to see in her Black Swan. Nina becomes paranoid that Lily is trying to steal her role, and the two of them have quite an uneasy relationship, but she's also kind of drawn to her (though not exactly in the way you might be thinking). The stress of trying to develop the dual role of the White Swan and the Black Swan drives Nina to the brink (beyond it, actually) of psychosis and self loathing, pushing her to an opening night performance that starts as a failure and becomes an utter revelation. And that's where I'd better stop with regard to story.
The film's crowning jewel, without a doubt, is the last approximately twenty minutes, which involve the opening night performance. And I'll have to be vague as heck because this is spoiler territory. Most of these "backstage melodrama" films have the big performance scene or sequence and they can occasionally be thrilling but usually only serve to weigh a film down. Not here. Oh no. The whole film has been building to this climax of Nina's inner demons and watching what she goes through to be what she needs to be for each act of the ballet took my breath away.
For some reason, although I'm usually quite the spoiler whore, I was quite scrupulous about spoilers for this movie. I watched the trailer once, then immediately watched it again, and was so intrigued that I decided then and there that that was all I wanted to know about the movie until I saw the whole thing for myself. I'm still not sure whether that really made any difference or not. Possibly the thing I love best about this movie is that it's not a "Gotcha!" kind of movie. It's not a movie built on twists. There are reveals, to be sure, but they're not of that nature. There are clear indications early on that things aren't what they seem and that Aronofsky is engaging in some metaphor. I was reminded a bit of movies like Jacob's Ladder and The Shining, where you're never entirely sure what's real and what's not. And maybe the greatest thing is that a lot of the time there's not really a right answer to that.
This is, at its most basic, a horror movie. It's been compared to David Cronenberg's work (I think The Fly and The Brood are the most comparable), but there's a lot more going on here than a body horror comparison will cover. It's been compared to Dario Argento's work, but while it's about people in the arts (specifically, about ballet dancers, as Argento's Suspiria was), it's still more than that. Nina isn't just a ballerina dealing with the pressure of her first major role and the other struggles that accompany her career in general. She's a woman trying to claim her identity, and while we may not all be ballet dancers, that is something at least that we can all relate to. And I think we can all agree that it can often be scary as hell. Okay, maybe not quite as scary as Nina's experiences, but frightening nonetheless.
I'd love to talk about Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassell, and Mila Kunis, because the acting across the board is superb, but I'm afraid of making this even longer than it already is. So I'll leave it with a "These guys totally own!" and move on, because I have to say a bit about casting, particularly the casting of Winona Ryder and Natalie Portman.
Darren Aronofsky's casting choices can be downright uncanny commentaries on the actors themselves, perhaps none of them more so than Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. It's almost as if he wants an actor's baggage to add an extra layer to the character they're playing. I was especially intrigued by the choice of WInona Ryder to play the involuntarily retiring ballet dancer. She's not someone I can really imagine as a dancer, but that doesn't matter as we never see her dance in the film. What we do see are a few choice meltdowns. Ryder's real life drama a few years ago can't help but affect how you view her in the film, and I think this is at least half the reason she was cast. And having her play the fading star while Portman's character rises to take her place was kind of genius. Because in many ways Natalie Portman is, for her generation, what Winona Ryder was for hers when she was that age. And speaking of Natalie...
I don't think I'm alone in having found Natalie Portman's transition from child star to adult actor a trifle disappointing. She had a maturity beyond her years as a young girl. When she was in Beautiful Girls alongside Timothy Hutton, his character told hers that he was sure that when she grew up whatever she ended up doing with her life was going to be amazing. Audiences had a similar expectation for Natalie herself, I think, but her adult roles have been frequently flat (with a couple of exceptions). So it was only fitting for her to play this dancer who has skill but can't quite sell herself in a grown-up role. Any doubts on that score should be put to bed with this film. And yet what I love is that she isn't wildly different. She's not made up to look different, her voice is not suddenly more sultry or aggressive. She's not all of a sudden hardcore, like this gangster rapping self-parody she did on SNL.
She's simply using her instrument in a way that I'm convinced she's just never been asked to before. It's hard to even imagine something like "Hold me like you did on Naboo!" after seeing her in this. Her Nina in is a cut above every single lead female performance I've seen this year. (Yes, even you, Annette Bening. I know losing the Oscar to Swank twice has got to burn, but if you won this year, it would be an apology Oscar.) While still managing to make what she does look easy, Portman's performance is nevertheless a reminder that not everyone with a pretty face can be an actress. There's a fearlessness and a dedication to the role and the world of this film that I think have put her in another league of artistry altogether.
Excellent, excellent movie. Man, I love this time of year!