Natalie Portman will break your heart and freak you out as Nina, the unhinged ballerina striving a little too hard for perfection in Darren Aronofsky's harrowing and hallucinatory Black Swan.
Portman tears into this role with such raw power that you'll wonder whether she will have anything left in the tank for future films. Considering what she has accomplished mentally and physically in this movie, this is one of the grander achievements by any actor or actress this year.
While Portman had a body double for some of the more difficult moves, we see her executing much of her own complicated dancing, thanks to a year's worth of intensive training with world-class dancers. This is not the waltz or disco; Portman executes some serious, hard-core ballet in this movie.
After years of struggles, veteran dancer Nina lands herself the part of a lifetime as the Swan Queen in a new version of Swan Lake by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). While those around her, including her needy mother (Barbara Hershey), feel that this achievement is well-deserved and should fuel her confidence, Nina spirals downward into a world of dark fantasy and self-destruction.
While Nina represents the veteran entering her prime, an up-and-coming rival is depicted by Mila Kunis as Lily, a woman with similar physical traits, but a much more "open" personality. She smokes; she's openly sexual; and she has wings tattooed on her back, representing a new, more-spirited kind of ballerina. Nina, much to Thomas' frustration, is wound too tight, is shy about sex and could use some of Lily's wildness.
One of Thomas' homework assignments for Nina is to go home and touch herself—and she does this in a sequence that is sure to burn out its share of DVD players once this baby hits home video. It's part of his attempt to naughty up Nina a bit so she can be more convincing in the Black Swan portion of the ballet—a process that is going a bit too slow in his eyes.
There's also Beth (Winona Ryder), the ballerina being forced out of the company against her will, a hard-drinking, defeated woman harboring much bitterness toward Thomas. Hershey's character, who practically keeps her daughter prisoner in their apartment, was also a dancer, whose career was halted with the birth of Nina.
As Nina's opening night draws nearer, symptoms of a total nervous breakdown manifest. She has hallucinations in which paintings and mirror reflections take on a life of their own. She has visions of scratching herself compulsively, or ripping the skin from beneath her fingernails. Most notably, her rivalry with Lily transforms into a twisted friendship that may or may not be sexual.
Aronofsky's past works (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler) have often dealt with strains of obsession, and Black Swan has its fair share. Career obsession, sexual obsession, body obsession, parental obsession ... it's a virtual cornucopia of obsessions. I don't see Aronofsky making a movie about Labrador puppies anytime soon (although he is in line to direct the next Wolverine movie).
Aronofsky's film is also very physical. Nina obviously has an eating disorder, evidenced by more than a few trips to the bathroom for vomiting spells and her palpable fear of cake. The film definitely conveys that the ballerina lifestyle is physically demanding and painful. Professional football players and boxers seem to have it easy compared to ballet dancers.
Portman might not have the perfected grace and polish of a lifetime dancer, but she acquits herself nicely in her dancing sequences, as does Kunis. While Aronofsky does use body doubles and digital effects, it is clear that the actresses have done most of their own footwork, an impressive feat.
Cassel (having a banner year stateside, with this and the American release of the French Mesrine films) plays the role of the ruthless master nicely. His character sets out to pollute the innocent, overly technical Nina and transform her into something more lethal. Cassel perfectly embodies a megalomaniac treacherously manipulating the weak for self-glory. His character has no redeeming qualities—a risky role for any actor.
Hershey and Ryder, whose real-life careers sort of parallel their roles in this movie, deliver some of their best work in years. This is especially the case for Hershey, who veers from sensitive to downright scary. Ryder, whose part is small but juicy, has a hospital scene involving a nail file that is the stuff of horror movies.
Portman will try to top her Black Swan performance in the coming years, and this will be a tall order, for sure. Let's hope the pressure doesn't get to her, resulting in fingernail mutilation and sex with Mila Kunis.