Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan explores one dancer’s quest for perfection in the cutthroat world of professional ballet, and her terrifying descent into madness, obsession, and self destruction. Natalie Portman’s performance as Nina, who is a rising star preparing for the lead role in Swan Lake, is superb, embodying all of the fragility, uptightness, and vulnerability of a young dancer willing to sacrifice everything – even her own life – for perfection. As Thomas – the brutal French artistic director of the company played by Vincent Cassel – points out, the only one holding back Nina from success is herself. With an overbearing mother who is still bitter about her own ruined career as a dancer, an aging star being forced to retire (Winona Ryder), and a confident newcomer in the company named Lilly (Mila Kunis), Nina is pushed further to the brink of a breakdown. Lilly is an alluring, sexually charged dancer who looks and acts like a black swan, while Nina embodies everything in a white swan – sweetness, innocence, and weakness. Desperate to achieve success as the seductive black swan, Nina sees Lilly as a rival, yet she is also a source of erotic pleasure for Nina – even if it’s only a hallucination.
Aronofsky’s camerawork and special effects bring this psychological thriller to life. Moment to moment, it is undeniably compelling and Nina’s downward spiral is devastating. But at some points he pushes too far to the extent that some of the more melodramatic moments are laughable – probably not the effect that he had intended. Tchaikovsky’s score for Swan Lake is prominent throughout the film and tweaked to dramatic effect, becoming increasingly unsettling with Nina’s delusions.
The world of ballet can be vicious, but Black Swan is a bit of a stretch from the truth. Artists often struggle to separate their artistic self from their personal self, but watching bird feathers sprout out of Nina’s skin as she stares at herself, horrified, in the mirror, was one of those laughable moments. Yet, the film hammers home one point that certainly rings true – not just in ballet, but in all art forms: Some individuals will sacrifice anything for the sake of artistic perfection.
Black Swan opens December 3rd. Watch the trailer below.