Dir. Darren Aronofsky
(2010, R, 108 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

At its heart, the hypnotically brilliant Black Swan is about the conflict between expression and control. It stars Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a New York ballerina working relentlessly for her chance at stardom. She’s fanatically disciplined, and her technique is flawless, but her face is hard and tense, like a cable pulled tight and ready to snap. Ballet is an art that forgives no mistake, not a foot out of place or an ounce of fat to alter the balance of a perfect physical form. Nina has dedicated herself at the expense of all else.

Vincent Cassel, as Thomas Leroy

The story ostensibly takes place among a Lincoln Center ballet company preparing its production of Swan Lake, but its real setting is Nina’s mind, which begins to unravel after she’s cast in the lead role. For this production, director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) has chosen Nina for both of the central roles: the tragic Swan Queen, whose heart is broken, and the Black Swan, her sinister counterpart. Nina is perfect for the Swan Queen, he says; she’s brittle, delicate, a porcelain doll about to break. But the Black Queen will require her to access the kinds of emotions she doesn’t let herself express. She maintains strict control over herself; as a torrent of latent fears and impulses explode to the surface, reality collapses around her. Separating what’s real from what’s not is tricky — it’s possible that not a single shot of the film represents objective reality — but sussing out the illusions is less important than how the illusions reflect Nina’s psyche.

The film is directed by Darren Aronofsky, whose The Wrestler dealt unflinchingly with the physical and emotional realities of a faded pro wrestler and whose Requiem for a Dream depicted drug addiction from the inside out. In Black Swan he combines both approaches. His camera emphasizes the strenuousness of ballet in the painful flexing of feet in pointe shoes. He focuses on Portman’s body as she suffers bloody injuries — some of which may be self-inflicted — and undergoes a strange metamorphosis. But it’s also a very internal film. It envelops us in her point of view, which is distorted by her terror, jealousy, insecurity, and anger. She sees her own face projected everywhere, and it looks back at her malevolently; her enemy is not a threat from outside, but her own inner self, which she wrestles down in a struggle to kill the dark emotions that stand between her and aesthetic perfection.

Barbara Hershey, as Erica Sayers

Portman’s ferociously committed performance is key to the film’s effect. What makes her so good is that we never see her relax. She channels anxiety and dread through her entire body, escalating it to a fever pitch of mortal terror that draws us in completely. The actress spent six months training before filming began, and she is thoroughly believable as a dancer, but more importantly she is able to convey the coiled intensity of her movements, the asceticism of her style that not only avoids passion but seems to fear it.

Nina’s mother is Erica (Barbara Hershey), who gave up her own ballet career when she conceived her daughter. Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin suggest a complex, deeply unhealthy relationship between them in subtle ways, without resorting to parent-living-through-her-child cliches. Though Nina is an adult, she still lives in her childhood bedroom, decorated in pink and full of stuffed toys as if still slept in by a six-year-old girl, and her mother, with a warm smile, exhibits a suffocating kind of affection. In one scene, Nina attempts to pleasure herself only to find her mother asleep in a chair beside her bed, which indicates an unsettling absence of boundaries. They’re caught in a tug-of-war between independence and control, intimacy and distance, obligation and resentment.

The film poses a question of artistic as well as interpersonal boundaries. Just as the Swan Queen is usurped by her villainous double, Nina fixates on a professional and perhaps even romantic rival, Lily, who is played by Mila Kunis in a performance of relaxed sensuality that makes Nina’s repression even more pronounced. Nina’s paranoia suggests All About Eve through a surrealist prism; she believes Lily is angling not only for her role but for the director and imagines them together in sordid scenarios. Nina’s jealousy is complicated by her erotic feelings for both; she harbors deep desires, but what she desires can hurt her the most.

What is the proper distance between actor and role, artist and art? To achieve true perfection might be to lose yourself completely in your creation. The result, as represented by Black Swan, can be as fearsome as it is beautiful.