Natalie Portman drowns in 'Swan Lake' in Darren Aronofsky's shocker 'Black Swan'
From the moment Nina (Natalie Portman) gets out of bed, she’s reminded of her mission in life. Her toes and feet crackle like splintering ice as she braces herself for another day in the realm of ballet, an environment dominated by myriad mirrors and an insatiable appetite for youthful energy. If you could listen to Nina’s psyche, you might hear the same unnerving sounds the rest of her body makes: Time is running out, opportunities are elusive and, even though Nina still lives with her mom (Barbara Hershey) and sleeps in a cotton-candy-pink bedroom full of stuffed animals and a ballerina music box, she’s not a child anymore.
In director Darren Aronofsky’s electrifying shocker “Black Swan,” Nina will take the express train to maturity, courtesy of the lecherous slave driver of a director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), a friendly new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis) who may or may not be a rival in disguise and a former prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) who is drunkenly tumbling down the shame spiral. The transformation into womanhood will take a few unexpected turns, however, as Nina allows paranoia, sexual confusion and a swarm of insecurities to send her into a warped wonderland in which all her bad dreams seem to be coming true on a regular basis.
Aronofsky established himself as a director to watch more than 10 years ago, with the one-two punch of “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” a pair of films in which the real and the surreal combined into bewildering blurs. He’s up to his old tricks again here, taking Nina’s terror to hallucinatory — some will say hysterical — heights by using all those merciless mirrors as weapons and magnifying minor details until they become unnerving. Throughout “Swan,” reflections turn out to be deceptions and much of what initially seems safe or innocent is usually revealed to be ugly or threatening. (Fingernail clipping has never before been so unnerving.)
As Nina prepares to play both the gentle White Swan and the malicious Black Swan in her company’s production of “Swan Lake,” Thomas uses her fervent dedication to her art as a weapon against her, continually comparing Nina’s passionless precision and well-practiced grace to Lily’s looser, lustier movements. “You could be brilliant,” he brays at Nina, “but you’re a coward.”
That’s not likely to be said of Portman, however. In her best roles, she’s always been exceptionally good at expressing the yearning and confusion of a young woman looking for guidance. In “Swan,” she first amplifies that quality and then slowly, painfully turns it inside out, spilling all of Nina’s secrets and long-suppressed desires into a magnificently messy symphony of self-destruction.
She’s surrounded by sensational turns from Kunis, who turns Lily into a sexually charged cipher whose motives are always murky, and Cassel, splendidly walking the thin line between encouraging mentor and heartless bully. Hershey rips into her juiciest part in years, conjuring up an almost maniacal mom whose sunny supportiveness hides a shadowy side might be even more frightening than Nina’s.
If you haven’t worked in the theater, it might be difficult to comprehend the lengths to which some performers will go to have that breakthrough moment in which they feel they’ve truly captured the character they’re playing or absorbed the emotions they need to make the portrayal work. But Aronofsky and Portman understand the process perfectly. Nina’s obsession with mastering her dual role is terrifying, but it’s also going to seem hauntingly familiar to many people who’ve spent time in the arts. People lose their senses in the limelight all the time, although rarely in such a wickedly entertaining way as Nina does in “Black Swan.”