Darren Aronofsky can make anything twisted and disturbing. Perhaps that's not necessarily tough with ballet, an art form which has long been known to place an exceedingly great amount of pressure on its performers, only to discard them when they get even a hair too old. The amount of discipline required by ballet, both over mind and body, is staggering, to the point where, like boot camp or prison, it can shatter people's perception of themselves.
This is one of the central themes of Black Swan, and part of what sends innocent young Nina (Natalie Portman) down a dark and disturbing road, all in the name of perfection. Of course, it helps that her mom (Barbara Hershey) is a total control freak and the ballet is presided over by the demanding and womanizing Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who uses sexuality to push Nina even further towards her goal, and to the edge of sanity.And then, of course, there must be the young wild girl Lilly (Mila Kunis) who befriends the timid Nina in an attempt to get her to loosen up. But it's not before long that the sheltered overachiever starts suspecting her fellow dancer is trying to steal her coveted role- The Swan Queen in Leroy's new rendition of Swan Lake. It only takes a brief and traumatic encounter with Beth (Winona Ryder) the aging former flame of Leroy's who has just been put out to pasture, to show us the path young Nina is on. What we don't see coming are the various lesbian encounters and bird-like hallucinations that splatter the grain-soaked frames that Aronofsky puts before us.
Undoubtedly one of the best films of 2010, Black Swan packs a lot of character into its small package. Shot on 16mm and utilizing mostly hand-held photography, much like Aronofsky's previous effort, The Wrestler, to convey a sense of realism and immediacy, Black Swan peels back the layers of Nina's psyche like an onion. We start with an innocent girl and watch as she's transformed through stress and pressure into nothing short of a monster. And yet in the end, you still feel sorry for her in the most endearing way.
The most fascinating part of Black Swan, besides the extremely sexy interactions between Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman, is the concept that the film's plot basically tracks the ballet being performed within the film. It's like Aronofsky saw Swan Lake, decided to make a film version of the tragic story, and ended up turning it into a modern meta-drama.
Portman deserves some serious recognition for her work here, as she balances the innocent with the insane especially well. Kunis is as captivating as we saw her in Forgetting Sarah Marshall but with a delectably dark edge, particularly when she takes Portman out for a night on the town. Cassel is sufficiently sleazy as the ballet company director who seemingly plucks the young starlet from his stable of girls, intent on turning her into a woman to satisfy his own lust, as well as the lust for his work. In a move that fends off stereotype, you can never quite tell whether Leroy actually wants to seduce Nina because he's on a quest to attain the perfect performance from her, or whether he's just after some virginal booty.
While I'm not a fan of digital effects, the ones employed here are rather effective, especially since none of them are truly meant to be seen as moments of reality. More effective are the practical effects involving Nina's many mysteriously self-inflicted wounds, which make you cringe even after you begin to suspect they may not actually be tangible. Clint Mansell's score integrates well with the classical pieces employed for the ballet and other exclamatory moments, one of the most humorous of which comes with a surprise during one of Natalie Portman's most personal scenes.
All in all, even if you positively hate ballet or anything artsy-fartsy like that, you should give Black Swan a try. If anything, I'll bet you would appreciate the creepy bird man costume and the hot make-out sesh shared by the two leads. After following up The Wrestler with this, It really makes you wonder why Aronofsky has decided to do something as commercial as Wolverine 2. We just hope it's not a repeat of The Fountain. In any case, we're sure that it'll be deranged and fantastic.