Darren Aronofsky has made another divisive film; in fact I feel a little divided on it myself. It’s expertly-made and you never know where it will go but you want to scrub the unpleasantness from you brain as soon as you leave the theater. Natalie Portman plays Nina, an dedicated ballerina with a controlling stage-mother (Barbara Hershey), deformed, swollen toes, and fingernails hanging by a thread from so much nervous (and possibly involuntary) back-scratching. If the pressure wasn’t enough to send Nina into an emotional breakdown before, it will after Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell, spewing firey intensity) casts her in his retelling of “Swan Lake.”
The child-like and virginal girl has the white swan down but it’s her transformation into the seductive and treacherous black swan that Leroy chides her into striving for, and Aronofsky makes her efforts to go to that place both uncomfortable and disturbing. Portman really sells everything here, making Nina a timid and on-edge innocent who falls into this black hole of horror and paranoia, assuming her understudy (a sexy-as-always Mila Kunis) is trying to knock her off. Aronofsky also points out that dancers don’t have a long shelf life, as evidenced by the extremely sad Winona Ryder character, Beth, an over-the-hill ballerina who sees no more use for life and has a bizarre scene later on with a nail file. Having this knowledge only furthers Nina’s descent into madness.
Aronofsky’s film is suspenseful, bleak, and completely depressing, the dread, gruesomeness, and insanity of it at times so heavy-handed that it’s sometimes laughable, buts it’s also original and has this tragic mastery that can’t be denied. It’s nothing I would call a great film (others might disagree) but it succeeds in being hauntingly told. And I give it credit for that.