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Pirouetting Out of Control

Black Swan (2010)

Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” arrives in theaters amid a torrent of hype, a swirl of anticipation spurred by the glamorous sex appeal of high-end ballet, sapphic copulation and Grand Guignol melodrama. But what really makes the picture tick is its insight into the performer’s soul, the striving for perfection, the quest for complete immersion in a part that spurs the proverbial blurred line between the real and the imagined.

Bolstered by an extraordinary Natalie Portman performance, a work brimming with bottled-up rage and painfully submerged lust, the movie chronicles the descent into madness of Nina Sayers (Ms. Portman) after she’s made the prima ballerina for the New York City Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake.” Violent, bloody hallucinations, fits of jealousy and spiteful outbursts are the story as Nina contends with rival Lily (Mila Kunis), her demonic mommie dearest Erica (Barbara Hershey) and the hard-driving company head Thomas (Vincent Cassel).

The screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin evokes the lonely burdens of performing. The protagonist is a steadfast, determined artist struggling to balance her unbending commitment to her craft and pervading career ambition with a combustible personal life. As Nina delves into “Swan Lake,” as the frenzied pressures and high expectations of the role of a lifetime become dark visions that afflict her conscience, “Black Swan” becomes immersed in her fraying psychology.

With hand-held cameras and an abundance of close-up tracking shots, Mr. Aronofsky gives Nina’s mental disintegration a first-person edge. The movie lovingly indulges in Ms. Portman’s picturesque facial features, meticulously composed wardrobe and just-so, smoothly tied hair. The filmmaker offers his star the chance to fully develop Nina’s severe, shy demeanor, forming a picture of a woman shaped entirely by the strains of her profession. His mobile camera — which pushes in, swoops and otherwise mimics Nina’s movements as she performs — replaces the beauty and ease of ballet with the sweaty, intense grind of putting one on. No matter what outward chaos develops, the movie is rooted in the inner life, the soul, of its protagonist and her experiences.

Nina’s pursuit of the impossibility of perfection injects swells of violence into her life, spurring brash action when her contained emotions come spilling out onstage. Mr. Aronofsky cakes that drive in a Cronenbergian body-horror movie aesthetic. Yet, the movie does not inspire the queasy, visceral response of, say, the full-fledged transformation on display in “The Fly.” It’s also not quite as campy as some might have you believe — the much-hyped sex scene, eloquent “Swan Lake” excerpts and a hammy Mr. Cassel are here, but Ms. Portman imbues her work with such tangible, methodical weight that the film remains grounded on a relatable plane. Truly, she is the show.

Still, “Black Swan” haunts you in other ways: in its subtle suggestions of past trauma in its protagonist’s life, its portrait of the indignities and pressures in trying to be the best at your profession and, finally, the very real and uncompromising depiction of a woman’s tenuous grip on herself. While the film’s hints at the supernatural, replete with dark surprises and frenzied visions might not be the stuff of great horror, its rendition of a mind shattering to pieces sticks in your skull.


Opens on Dec. 3 in New York and Los Angeles and on Jan. 21, 2011 in Britain.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz and John McLaughlin, based on a story by Mr. Heinz; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Andrew Weisblum; music by Clint Mansell; ballet choreography by Benjamin Millepied; production design by Thérèse DePrez; costumes by Amy Westcott, ballet costumes by Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte; produced by Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Brian Oliver and Scott Franklin; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Natalie Portman (Nina Sayers/the Swan Queen), Vincent Cassel (Thomas Leroy/the Gentleman), Mila Kunis (Lily/the Black Swan), Barbara Hershey (Erica Sayers/the Queen) and Winona Ryder (Beth Macintyre/the Dying Swan).


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