Ballet has earned such a reputation for impeccable beauty that director Darren Aronofsky seems to positively revel in dragging it through the gutter a bit. His film “Black Swan” contains all the pretty stuff — the tutus, the immaculate posture, the grace and elegance in movement — that attracts young girls on an almost primal level, but then it delves into what it means to court perfection: the grueling training, the anorexia, the bitchy competitiveness, the repressed insecurity that threatens to come bubbling to the surface.

At first glance, Aronofsky’s intentions with “Black Swan” are clear enough: It’s an intense psychological thriller that starts off slow and ramps up to some serious gasp-inducing frights. The story involves a professional ballet dancer, Nina (Natalie Portman), who’s cast as the lead in a production of “Swan Lake.” It’s her big break, but the director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) — a petty tyrant who likes to sleep with his stars — insists she dance two roles: both the innocent princess Odette, who is turned into a swan by a sorcerer; and the sorcerer’s daughter, Odile, who impersonates Odette and steals her lover.

Nina is just right for the princess role, a virginal perfectionist who displays a fragile beauty. But she can’t please Thomas when dancing as the black swan, Odile — she lacks a certain wildness and passion that the role demands. Enter Lily (Mila Kunis), a West Coast bad girl who effortlessly embodies the sensuality and abandon that Nina cannot. Lily gradually befriends Nina, but Nina can’t decide whether she’s honest or angling for her role, a paranoia that only increases as Thomas’ eyes turn to Lily. He makes her Nina’s stage double, the dancer who will take over should, say, an accident happen to Nina.

Black Swan
Director Darren Aronofsky
Run Time 108 min.
Language English
Opens Now showing (May 13, 2011)

Adding to Nina’s problems are her overly needy mom (Barbara Hershey), who’s living out the career she never had through her daughter, and the troupe’s former star (Winona Ryder), who hasn’t gone down gracefully.

It’s easy to see the female-jealousy-going-over-the-edge film in this material — a la “Single White Female” or “Fatal Attraction” — and Aronofsky delivers on that front, but “Black Swan” opens up to reveal a number of different levels. This is a film about a dancer in a production of “Swan Lake,” but it’s also “Swan Lake” itself, with almost every character in the film mirroring one in the ballet. It’s a film that begins grounded in the sweat of practice, but later detours sharply into the heroine’s head space.

Where Aronofsky’s last film, “The Wrestler,” was an essentially realist film about a fading pro-wrestling star with delusions of grandeur regarding his comeback potential, “Black Swan” is about an aspiring ballet star with delusions, period. Both films also locate a core level of masochism in performance, where the desire to excel is inseparable from the desire to self-harm. That Aronofsky finds this in both pirouettes and pile-drives, high art and low, suggests it’s probably true. For what is perfection other than an obsession with an ideal that will always remain just over the horizon? At what point does the desire for perfection cease being healthy? (Exhibit A: Michael Jackson.)

Also coursing through “Black Swan” is the idea of the double, the doppelganger, a shadow self that can be either internal or external, but usually up to no good. Clever casting by the director has Portman, Ryder and Hershey -with their rather similar looks — as all potentially representing the same dancer in past, present and future. There are also several points in the film where Nina glimpses — on the subway, in the mirror — a figure who is her but not her. The filmmaking is such that, like Nina, we are left wondering if we really saw what we think we did.

David Lynch — who’s made a few films about doubles (“Lost Highway,” “Mulholland Drive”) — once spoke in an interview of his belief that “we all have at least two sides. One of the things I’ve heard is that our trip through life is to gain divine mind through knowledge and experience of combined opposites. The world we live in is a world of opposites. And to reconcile those two opposing things is the trick.”

That’s the trip you take with “Black Swan,” more powerful than the nerve-tingling ecstasy pill that Lily slips Nina when they go out clubbing. If Aronofsky had merely made the psycho-chick suspense flick, this would still be very good; he could jerk us around like marionettes. But by leaving the viewer a little “room to dream” -as Lynch likes to call it — the film retains some mystery, something unknowable, which is exactly what will keep you coming back to it.

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