Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Black Swan is an intimate and inexpensive little movie that might be on its way to breaking out as a major hit—this year’s Juno or Little Miss Sunshine. Made for $13 million, it’s earning mammoth grosses in limited release. Like those predecessors, Black Swan has crowd-pleasing qualities that suggest it may prove intriguing and palatable to a much larger audience. But while Juno and Little Miss Sunshine used the conventions and techniques of scruffy independent films to tell fundamentally heartwarming stories about families, Black Swan uses those same conventions and techniques to tell the story of a high-strung New York City ballerina and her descent into madness.
The result is a lurid horror flick that might scare the bejesus out of a teenager whose idea of a great time at the movies is a blood-and-gore fest like Saw or Hostel. That horror-loving teenager will be too young to know that what he’ll be seeing is a cross between 1948’s The Red Shoes and 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. Black Swan borrows from the plot of The Red Shoes, the British classic about a determined ballerina whose life comes to mirror the story of the girl whose enchanted footwear compels her to dance until she dies. And it borrows from Rosemary’s Baby in its depiction of an isolated Upper West Sider who gets what she most wants only to find herself lost in a paranoid frenzy because of it.
Those films were anchored by indelible starring performances: Moira Shear-er’s dazzling turn in The Red Shoes and Mia Farrow’s perfect depiction of innocence under assault in Rosemary’s Baby. In Black Swan, Natalie Portman also gives a knockout performance that will be remembered decades from now. She spends the entirety of the movie like a priceless piece of Limoges teetering on the edge of a high shelf. The gorgeous fragility she radiates creates an almost unbearable tension in the audience about what will happen when her China doll finally begins its plunge to the marble floor beneath.
She plays Nina Sayers, who has been for several years a member of the corps de ballet—the dancing chorus—of New York’s premier company when she is suddenly cast in the leading role in Swan Lake. She lives alone with her mother (Barbara Hershey), who makes noises about how her “sweet girl” is just working herself too hard. Nina is both the fulfillment of her mother’s ambitions and her rival in them; the mother, who had to quit the same company decades earlier when she became pregnant, undermines Nina’s confidence in tiny but devastating ways.
The pas de deux between mother and daughter is the most original and bracing aspect of Black Swan, directed with extraordinarily heavy-handed authority by Darren Aronofsky. (There is, literally, one joke in it.) The least original aspect is the character of the company’s hard-driving choreographer, Thomas (Vincent Cassel). He’s every Svengali impresario the screen has ever seen rolled up in one, and his every line of dialogue transforms Black Swan into the worst kind of showbiz cheese. Nina easily embodies the pure White Swan. But she cannot find its demonic alter ego, the titular black swan, within her because she spends so much of her energy repressing any tendency toward emotional and sexual abandon. Thomas demands that she feel, that she seduce.
On the surface, the plot is as howlingly silly as Thomas’s lines. We are meant to understand that Nina is slowly going mad because she is so terribly repressed—if only she could eat a burger and allow her pansexual fantasies to become real, she’d be just fine.
But if we don’t take its storyline literally, Black Swan is actually up to something interesting. The fairytale plots of ballets like Swan Lake are really just as wild and lurid as the plot of Black Swan, and Aronofsky and his three screenwriters have actually found in their overripe story a cinematic analogue to the emotional extremism of ballet.
The movie begins with a nightmare Nina has in which she is the princess at the beginning of Swan Lake upon whom a sorcerer casts the spell that transforms her into a swan. Like Swan Lake itself, what follows in Black Swan is the acting-out of Nina’s worst fear and deepest desire.
Ballet attempts to mix a certain degree of horror (girl under transformative spell by wicked wizard) with extraordinary beauty (the human body transforming itself into a vision of superhuman grace). Black Swan mixes the horror of Nina’s downward spiral with the extraordinary beauty of her determination—represented by Portman’s own transcendent beauty as a peerless object of the camera’s gaze.
Black Swan is, like ballet, crazy and brilliant and stupid and unforgettable. Unlike ballet, it’s never boring.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s movie critic.