Natalie Portman is all grown up, and the proof is in her searing portrayal of the innocent perfectionist Nina in Darren Aronofsky’s intense exploration into the dark heart of a rising ballerina.
As Nina, Portman fully embraces the girlishness and wide-eyed striving of an artist who has been little more than an instrument to be set in motion by others. She pushes her body to the limit at great personal cost, but every ache, broken toenail and any of the other sacrifices are worth enduring if they prepare her for the that one true performance that soars above the rest. In theory, Nina knows passion and beauty and precision, but she hasn’t trusted her wings enough to make an attempt to fly.
Her moment comes when the ballet’s artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), taps her for the lead role of the Swan Queen in a strikingly new interpretation of Swan Lake, one that will force her to dance beyond mere technical brilliance and into Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which makes this her very own Apocalypse Now) where she will have to let it all go.
The treacherous dynamics of the ballet strike us immediately. We see Nina and the other young dancers tiptoeing around an aging star (Winona Ryder) on the verge of losing not only the spotlight but also her mind. And in a transitional moment, when she believes no one is watching, Nina pilfers a few trinkets from the former dance queen’s backstage makeup stand.
Right from the start, Aronofsky introduces myriad reflective surfaces, cueing us into the notion that Nina’s fragile psyche is set to fragment into dangerous shards.
When it does, the camera (stunningly aggressive work from longtime Aronofsky cinematographer Matthew Libatique that mimics horror conventions) pulls a neat trick, drawing us so close to Nina that at times it seems like we are looking out from either behind her eyes or from her shoulder as if we are the devil and angel combo locked in immortal combat for control of her already-lost soul.
Looming over her shoulder, along with us, stands her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), another former dancer who gave up the boards, with apparent reservations, once she became pregnant with Nina. Erica now paints and offers scathingly snide comments that chip away at Nina’s already flagging self-confidence. Nina’s only respite at home is behind the closed doors of either the bathroom or her dolled-up bedroom, each dominated by mirrors. But soon her reflection rebels, turning on her, casting withering stares and clawing savagely at her back.
Nina starts seeing doppelgangers approaching her on the subway, dark streets and in abandoned alleyways. Her greatest enemy, though, might be Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer in the troupe, a sexually liberated free spirit with wings tattooed on her back who becomes Nina’s confidante/lover/rival. Lily, with her name ironically recalling references of lily-white purity, is the personification of darkness that Nina needs to embrace in order to truly dance both the white and black swan sides of the Swan Queen.
Portman commands the screen and through her own career traces the trajectory of Nina. She has been the precocious young actress, the preternaturally aware girl raised by an assassin (The Professional), the youthful next-door neighbor in love with a grown but arrestedly developed man (Beautiful Girls), the little lost stepdaughter of a driven cop (Heat). It seems as if she would forever play these kind of roles; never able to grow up. Graced (or cursed) with good genes, she has waited for time to catch up with her psychological depth, and now she has danced right up to the precipice and has taken that final leap.
The girl is gone, and Black Swan takes flight. With Portman shouldering the burden onscreen, Aronofsky has crafted a spellbinding blend of Kubrickian execution and sensual pop psychosis to rival David Fincher’s Fight Club. It is a thing of beauty and perfection, this epic and tragic dance. Grade: A
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