With Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use. 107 minutes.
BLACK SWAN is one of the strangest films you’re likely to encounter this year. Featuring a breathtaking performance by Natalie Portman, it is the story of the horrible things that happen to a ballerina about to get her breakthrough leading role in “Swan Lake.” Or is it? By film’s end you’ll be wondering how much of what you’ve seen is “real” and how much is simply taking place in the head of its main character. It may not be as neat as it appears.
Portman stars as Nina Sayers, who has been dancing in a New York ballet company and is now trying out for the lead in “Swan Lake.” Artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) has the notion to have the same dancer play two roles, that of the “White Swan” and the evil, seductive “Black Swan.” He tells Nina if he was casting them separately, she would be perfect as the White Swan, but she’s too controlled and needs to get in touch with her wild, dark side to be able to do both.
Three women complicate matters. There’s Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey) who gave up her own dancing career when Nina was born and sees a chance for fulfillment through her daughter. There’s the reigning diva Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), who is being forcibly retired by Leroy from both the company and his bedroom. And then there’s Lily (Mila Kunis), a new member of the company. Is she a rival? Is she a friend? Is she trying to seduce Nina to the dark side?
How you read the film will depend on whether you see Nina as a woman striving to make the most of her big break while fending off the unwanted attentions of these three women and dealing with Leroy’s more than professional interest in her as well. Is her tenseness and odd behavior, like scratching herself until she bleeds, a reaction to the pressure? Or is it all taking place in her head? Again and again we get scenes that seem real only to learn they are not. It’s fair to wonder, therefore, whether anything she experiences in the story is has actually occurred.
Director Darren Aronofsky is known for his surreal films such as “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream.” Here he does several things to make the film seem almost dreamlike, using techniques more familiar in thrillers and horror films than in a story of ballet. Most unusual is the film’s color scheme which is largely black and white. The film is shot in color but much of what we see in clothing and décor is monochromatic, so that the odd bits of color tend to pop out at us. In many ways this is the fever dream of a would-be ballerina.
While the performances are all solid – with Mila Kunis making you forget she was ever on “That ‘70s Show” – this is Portman’s film all the way. She exhibits an intensity and a tightly-wound energy that turns Nina into a ticking bomb. We simply don’t know whether that impending outburst will be directed outward or at herself.
Although “Black Swan” is a wide release, this is very much arthouse fare, and some mainstream viewers may be baffled by the film’s refusal to give us clear answers. In fact, that is the movie’s strength. It is not obscure or dull, but in engaging the viewer it demands that each of us make our own sense of what we see.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.