Despite a shift from the squared circle to the ballet stage, Black Swan functions as a direct companion piece to The Wrestler, delivering as it does another portrait by director Darren Aronofsky of self-mutilation carried out in service of a personal/professional dream, and one told via corresponding sequences, final image and Dardennes-inspired cinematography. Rather than Mickey Rourke’s over-the-hill grappler, the artist/athlete in question here is Nina (Natalie Portman), an aspiring soloist with Lincoln Center’s ballet company who finds herself going over the edge while striving for, and then struggling to maintain, the lead role in director Thomas’ (Vincent Cassel) new production of Swan Lake. An intrusive stage-mommy dearest (Barbara Hershey) has warped Nina’s sense of self, but as suggested by the almost-inaudible sound of cackling laughter over the film’s title card – a sound that will reappear as Nina’s craziness escalates – it also seems that something deeper inside Nina, something more primal and unhinged, has begun to push her over the edge. An opening dream sequence of Nina performing the prologue from Swan Lake, in which her innocent white swan is accosted by the monstrously feathered sorcerer Von Rothbart, lays the groundwork for what’s to come: a slow descent into hallucinatory madness in which Nina’s life begins to take on the form of the very Tchaikovsky ballet she’s rehearsing.
As Swan Lake concerns the white swan’s tragic suicide after having her love stolen away by her evil twin, the Black Swan, Nina’s journey is inevitably accompanied by a dark doppelganger: brash new company member Lilly (Mila Kunis), whose wing tattoos make plain her apparent role as Nina’s tormentor. Alas, even with Aronofsky’s incessant mirror imagery and twirling camerawork, Nina’s intensifying visions – of a bloody shoulder wound that seems to be sprouting feathers (or is it just the byproduct of her self-destructive scratching habit?); and of Lilly’s surreptitious scheming and her habit of morphing into a nightmare version of Nina herself – prove doggedly literal. For all its misdirections and supposed confusion, Black Swan can be a rather obvious bird. Nina nabs the ballet’s lead role by convincing Thomas that she can be not only the delicate white swan but also the fierce, uninhibited black swan by rejecting his sexual advances with a vicious bite of his lips. It’s the first of many moments in which Aronofsky posits Nina’s mania as a partial byproduct of her sexual repression/awakening, an undercurrent also promoted by her lesbian attraction/repulsion to Lilly, which (because of the film’s incessant twinning) is really a desire that speaks to Nina’s feelings about herself.
The film’s lack of depth isn’t as problematic as a lack of subtlety that somewhat drains the proceedings of the mysterious hysteria that should be its calling card. Still, if not the equal of Suspiria or Repulsion, similar portraits of hothouse feminine sexuality and psychosis, nor of obvious ancestor The Red Shoes, Black Swan remains a consistently gripping bit of operatic lunacy, and one elevated by a lead performance of intensely focused disintegration and regeneration by Natalie Portman. Her smile always threatening to devolve into tears, Portman’s Nina is a magnetic focal point even though, like Rourke’s wrestler, she’s also a fairly standard (artist-in-free-fall) archetype. A similar familiarity is found in Aronofsky’s style, which like The Wrestler favors behind-the-head tracking shots that create intimacy with his protagonist, and a fixation – in scenes of Nina’s mom chopping her daughters fingernails off, or of a trainer cracking Nina’s toes and ankles – on the corporeal cost of Nina’s work. There’s a nagging sense that Black Swan would have been better served by going even further off the deep end, both narratively and psychologically. Nonetheless, Aronofsky’s rigorous fascination with the bodily sacrifices required to achieve cherished objectives is, as in his prior work, expressed via captivating milieu-specific details – such as Nina’s heavily symbolic destruction and then reconstitution of her dance slippers – and, finally, an empathetic mood of weary emotional and spiritual desperation.