Dec. 17 2010 12:00 AM

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
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.”