Another look at Darren Aronofsky's provocative new thriller
Published: December 22, 2010
The Black Swan
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
A nightmare in pink toe shoes and whisper-thin deconstructed knits by the Rodarte sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy (who do the ballet costume design, along with Amy Westcott), Darren Aronofsky’s tension-wrought psychological thriller Black Swan skews more Requiem for a Dream than The Wrestler: The evil one/killer/stalker/torturer is as close to home as they get, but still, the career is all there is to live for.
Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a dedicated ballerina whose single focus is to rise to the top of her troupe, attract the attention of the director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), and take the lead role in his new production of Swan Lake as his older muse Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) makes her ungraceful and forced retirement and a naturally talented new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the troupe.
Nina lives for the dance, but her regimented schedule and ex-dancer momager Erica (Barbara Hershey) allow little light into her sheltered life. Lily represents stiff competition in the company, and offers the utter passion and lightness that Nina lacks. And when Thomas announces Nina as his new Swan Queen—both the white and black swan, a role that demands that the transformation take place onstage by a single dancer—it comes alongside his professional and personal interest in changing this good girl into a seductress. Insecurities mount as Nina, always afraid of not being good enough, navigates awakening to the sensuality she needs for the role of a lifetime and potential success.
Sleep deprived, hungry, and physically worn out, Nina becomes consumed with paranoia about her suffocating stage mother’s controlling and manipulating ways, Lily’s lackadaisical attitude that influences her dancing in only good ways, and Thomas’ lasciviousness. When the fears of a ballerina begin to physically manifest on Nina’s body—her fingernails,toenails and, cuticles tear; foot bones pop; a rash appears on her back—the taunt muscles and ligaments in her neck and tortured face aren’t the only signs of her compulsion.
Black Swan’s beautifully painful tale is told though Portman's lovely face, which exposes all of the physical and emotional tolls of a career that requires a single-minded obsession. (Hershey’s face does the same from the perspective of failure.) And though the medium of expression in the movie is dance, Kunis’ huge smile and dark eyes flash dangerous fun, Cassel is as sexy as he is frighteningly cutthroat, and Ryder’s suffering can be seen and felt from across the street.
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