After tackling the physical toll a sport and lifestyle can have on an aging man in THE WRESTLER, Darren Aronofsky has decided to look at what kind of emotional conflict erupts when a young ballet dancer is obsessed with perfection. Although the events in the film are somewhat straightforward, the internal conflict that goes on within Nina (Natalie Portman) is highly complex, making this one of Aronofsky’s most compelling dramas to date.
Nina Sayers is one of the brightest and most promising dancers in her company and on the first day back from break, her eccentric and morally void teacher, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) holds a tryout for the lead in his new ballet, Swan Lake. After getting the part, Nina is thrust into an emotional struggle with herself because she can’t come to terms with how to dance the Black Swan part of the role since that part requires less inhibition than what she’s accustomed to. Being a good, mommy’s girl her whole life hasn’t prepared her for how to deal with the advancements of her teacher or her new competition at the company, Lilly (Mila Kunis). Essentially, the rules and discipline of ballet that have kept her grounded her entire life are now falling down, thus breaking her entire foundation.
Although the struggle within Nina is the basis for the film, nothing is really as it seems. Aronofsky blurs the line between reality and Nina’s craziness, so the audience is constantly guessing as to what is real and what is not. It’s no coincidence that Nina is going through the same thing and Aronofsky’s mix of reality allows us to fully dive into Nina’s world. As her hallucinations become more real, the intensity of the film picks up until we’re hanging on the edge of our seats, waiting to find out how the big performance is going to end. The ballet itself was an afterthought to the internal battle Nina was waging and we were more interested to see that outcome than the ballet itself.
Natalie Portman has been a fan favorite for a while after debuting in LEON and then going on to star in the Star Wars films, but in BLACK SWAN, she finally shows us the greatness she’s capable of. Nina is such a reserved character and Portman does a fantastic job of slowly letting her lose control and become the Black Swan (both figuratively and literally). It’s not an easy task because that transformation is what carries the film and with a lesser talented actress, it wouldn’t have worked. Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey all turned in great performances as well and their supporting efforts allowed for Portman to shine.
But the real star of the film is Aronofsky’s directing and storytelling. You have to credit the man for crafting a story about ballet and making it interesting to people that know nothing about ballet. But ballet is such a small part of this story, much like wrestling had little to do with THE WRESTLER. This is a film about one person’s obsession with perfection and her inability to deal with the emotional stress that comes with it. It’s a fascinating character study that will have to be viewed multiple times in order to fully appreciate what Aronofsky has given us.