If Roman Polanski had made The Red Shoes (1948), the results might have been something like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Aronofsky is certainly indebted to both Michael Powell’s film and to Polanski in Black Swan. On occasion, he even directly quotes from The Red Shoes, and he’s in the realm of psychological thriller that questions the nature of identity that’s been at the center of many Polanski films for 50 years. And yet for all its areas of influence, Aronofsky’s film has a character all its own. Is it the best film of 2010? Perhaps. It’s certainly a major contender.
In its simplest terms, this is the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballet dancer who is essentially living the dream of her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), whose own career was side-lined by her pregnancy. Nina dances for a ballet company at Lincoln Center that is overseen by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). The company’s new season is to start with Leroy’s re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Since Leroy has discarded his star—and lover—Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), it’s just possible that Nina might land the lead role. The problem is that while Leroy finds her perfect for the White Swan, he finds her classical perfection entirely wrong for the Black Swan. Seeing no dark side in her weighs against Nina’s chances (as does her apparent unwillingness to succumb to Leroy’s advances), yet she somehow gets the role—after seemingly being told she hasn’t.
Factored into the equation is newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis), who is everything Nina isn’t. She is the opposite of perfect and is openly sexual, where Nina is repressed and priggish. In fact, Lily truly is the Black Swan. Nina is drawn to her—either in spite of or because of the fact that Lily is a rival. The rivalry is made even more pronounced when Leroy makes Lily Nina’s understudy. Nina is fascinated by Lily’s sexual nature and her freedom—perhaps she’s even romantically inclined toward her. Lily is what she’d like to resemble—everything her mother has prevented her from being in her smothering, obsessive pursuit of Nina’s career.
That’s the setup—or so it seems—and the story follows Nina’s progression through the rehearsals and the premiere of “Swan Lake.” But the question—one that becomes ever more slippery—is where reality leaves off and Nina’s fantasy life begins. And the film isn’t exactly answering that question, choosing instead to leave the exact point of departure between truth and fantasy uncertain. That was suggested by the film’s very first scene—and by the end you realize that we’ve never known how much of what we’ve seen was in the mind of our main character.
It’s a skillful approach as we watch Nina descend into horror and madness—very much evoking memories of Catherine Deneuve in Polanski’s Repulson (1965), of Polanski himself in The Tenant (1976) and even of Ewan McGregor in this year’s The Ghost Writer. All of these films are ones in which the identity of the main character threatens to be stamped out by the encroachment of madness, or a stronger personality, or both. Yet Polanski works in a very different tone than does Aronofsky. Polanski never made a film this excessive and operatic. Black Swan is a much more flamboyant work, which is only right considering the subject matter. This is a film about people living in the larger-than-life world of the performing arts. It needs to be big—and, thankfully, that’s exactly the emotionally real, viscerally disturbing, phantasmagorically compelling movie Aronofsky and his fearless star serve up.
I actually cannot do justice to Black Swan within these confines. It’s too rich and too dense with various possible readings and dark undercurrents. But it is, without a doubt, a movie that belongs on your must-see list. Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.