Darren Aronofsky's wonderfully creepy Black Swan bears less resemblance to a lyrical ballet movie of old, like The Red Shoes, than it does to the crack-up classic, Repulsion. Roman Polanski's 1965 film dealt with an isolated young woman in the grip of sexual hysteria and psychological disintegration. Aronofsky's protagonist, a heavily repressed ballerina named Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), is similarly unstable, and as in the earlier picture, we view her mental collapse from her own delusional perspective. The movie has some shaky plot points and an underdeveloped key character—it's not entirely satisfying; but it's infused with the director's usual creative brio, and it has a great dark gleaming look. It's an ambitious shocker, and it's hard to imagine anyone other than Aronofsky (almost) pulling it off.
Portman's Nina is a dancer with a Lincoln Center company that could be the New York City Ballet (one of whose members, Benjamin Millepied, choreographed the elegant dance sequences in the film). Nina still lives with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer who sacrificed her own career to raise her child and is now, in traditional fashion, living out her lost dreams through her daughter. But Nina's career seems stuck: After several years with the corps de ballet, she has yet to win a featured role. Then, in the midst of preparing a modernized version of Swan Lake, the company's creative director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell), decides to "retire" his aging prima ballerina, Beth Mcintyre (Winona Ryder), and, after close observation, to replace her with Nina. It's a contingent decision, though—Thomas admires Nina's technical perfection as a dancer, but feels she still lacks the inner fire necessary for stardom. He drills her relentlessly to merge with her new role. "Lose yourself," he tells her. Nina, a fragile personality to begin with, takes his command rather too much to heart.
The movie cleverly models its storyline on that of Swan Lake itself. Nina must dance the part of the White Swan, a vision of purity, and also that of the Black Swan, her sensuous double. When Nina's own Black Swan, a dark beauty named Lily (Mila Kunis), joins the company, Nina becomes convinced that the newcomer is after her role. Where Nina's life is consumed by ballet, Lily is an urban party girl, at home with drink and drugs and wild sex, and she draws Nina into her lurid orbit. Lily may be more than Nina's rival; she could be her downfall.
Eeriness seeps into the story slowly. We notice a strange abrasion on Nina's back at one point; and when she walks past a wall filled with portraits, we see the eyes in one of the faces slowly start to move. Her mother becomes an increasingly disturbing presence; and there's a repulsive encounter in a subway, and a scene in a hospital that's pure Guignol. Meanwhile, Thomas is becoming a problem: Is he trying to loosen her up for her big performance—or is he coming on to her? "Sex—do you enjoy it?" he asks. "We need to be able to talk about this." Receiving no positive response, he tells her, "Go home, touch yourself—live a little." As the big night approaches, and Nina's world begins to fragment in ever more alarming ways, we wonder if she can escape the fate of the White Swan she plays in the ballet.
Natalie Portman gives one of her most compelling performances in this film, which is saying something. She navigates her character's mental decline—and some boldly-staged sex scenes—with supreme confidence. (She also did most of her own dancing, which is captured with customary hand-held finesse by Aronofsky's regular cinematographer, Matthew Libatique.) It's unfortunate that Vincent Cassel's character isn't more fully worked-out—this powerful actor really needed more to bite into. And the picture's conclusion leaves some questions distractingly unanswered. Still, Black Swan isn't like any other movie you're likely to see this year. Which could be reason enough to see it.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.