It starts with a dream and moves quickly into foreshadowing. What follows is an intricate blend of delusional fantasy and chilling reality, both intertwining inseparably. The season for a New York City ballet company opens with Swan Lake; although it’s been done to death, this version promises to be more visceral, energetic and stunning. The tale of the Swan Queen involves an enchanted lake, an evil twin, a wicked sorcerer, a prince, seduction, betrayal and suicide. Each of these events mirror repressed, overworked and timid Nina Sayers’ (Natalie Portman) downward spiral into paranoia, hallucinations, doppelgangers, and transformation, as she toils over being the perfect ballerina. The symbolism is obvious, with the show having unnerving equivalencies with her life, even going so far as to include actual mirror tricks and mutant-swan transfiguration makeup. Conquering one’s fears has never been so daunting. And if it’s simply demonstrating the hardships of professional dancing, it’s visually gone much too far.
After a surprise audition is conducted by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the instructor, Nina realizes she isn’t quite good enough to land the role of the Swan Queen – she doesn’t seem a perfect match to play the dual part of the Black Swan as well, a particularly challenging character metamorphosis in the Swan Lake ballet. When she’s chosen for it nonetheless, her company is split between congratulatory spirits and jealousy. Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), the previous lead, is forced into retirement due to her age, and is bitter at her replacement. Another threat is posed by new recruit Lily (Mila Kunis), who receives a lot of attention from Leroy when his advances toward Nina fail.
The new Queen’s relationship with her draining, overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) is strained and spiteful, the two living alone in a dim apartment with constant thoughts of disdain; her mother gave up her own dancing career to raise Nina. She’s also noticed a rash developing on her back and an excessive amount of bleeding, especially from her fingers. All these worrisome elements contribute to her increasing stress, otherworldly visions and loss of mental stability.
Director Darren Aronofsky has always had a knack for artistic weirdness, and here he seems to be gravitating towards David Cronenberg’s appeal for mixing grotesqueries, bloody, often self-inflicted violence and sexuality with distorted, damaged flesh. Both Portman and Kunis are odd choices for this material, especially with the graphic dialogue, lesbianism, sex, and suggestive imagery, all of which is forced to blatantly shy away from actual nudity. Portman’s performance, however, is intense and convincing.
On the technical side, the overuse of handheld cameras gives a heightened sense of voyeurism and immediacy, but it also exudes an unpolished feel. The cutting in and out of music is startling, but the abrupt transitions into scenes are rushed. The score itself is one of the most rewarding components, thanks largely to the original compositions by Tchaikovsky. There’s also plenty of focus on the art of dancing, ballet moves, form and rehearsal, but they’re quickly lost to the more sinister, visually alarming ideas. The all-consuming Swan role does allow for some frightening, climactic surprises, but the symbolism is too apparent and the story too generic to give this tale of “a woman losing her mind while battling inner demons” enough originality to stay afloat.
– Mike Massie