The film stars Natalie Portman in a daring, career-best, sure-to-be-award-laden performance as an ambitious young ballerina at a New York ballet company whose quest for perfection drives her dangerously over the edge after she is chosen to dance the lead in Swan Lake.
The company’s artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) wants to strip down Tchaikovsky’s ballet and make it “visceral and real”. Yet is Portman’s innocent Nina the right dancer to be his new star? Sure, she has the temperament and technique to perform the part of Odette, the pure White Swan. But has she the fire and sensuality to pull off the role’s dark double, Odile, the Black Swan?
Goaded by the manipulative Thomas, bullied by her thwarted ex-dancer mother (Barbara Hershey) and threatened by free-spirited new rival Lily (Mila Kunis), the virginal Nina tries to find her dark side. The endeavour takes her into some very strange corners of her psyche, unlocking fears, desires, neuroses and obsessions and tipping her over the edge into madness.
As Nina’s mental disintegration progresses, we the audience are never entirely sure what is hallucinatory fantasy and what is real – which makes for a pervasive sense of unease interspersed with jolting scares.
Aronofsky playfully mixes the high art world of ballet with the schlockier pleasures of horror, but what makes this perverse marriage work so well isn’t so much the incongruity of the pairing as the way in which Nina’s warped imaginings spring from anxieties that must be all too real for many dancers.
Portman’s Nina has her cinematic precursors. She shares traits with Moira Shearer’s driven ballerina in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and with Catherine Deneuve’s sexually repressed heroine in Polanski’s 1965 thriller Repulsion. But she also surprisingly resembles the protagonist of Aronoffsky’s last film, Mickey Rourke’s masochistic grappler in The Wrestler, someone else who puts his body through all manner of torments in pursuit of his ‘art’.
Black Swan is as tough to watch, in places, as The Wrestler, but it is gripping, creepy and frightening – and great fun.
On general release from 21st January.