The sheltered ballerina Natalie Portman plays in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan dreams of dancing the part of Odette in Swan Lake. But even in her dreams, she’s shadowed. She never imagines herself dancing with Prince Siegfried, the hero; her pas de deux are with Von Rothbart, the villain of the piece, the sorcerer who ultimately seals Odette’s doom. His spell transforms her into the swan: He gives her death and beauty wrapped together, and as the fevered film progresses, and Portman gets drawn further away from the childhood bedroom over which her mother (Barbara Hershey) keeps such careful watch, she starts to see the same pattern play out in life.
It’s hard knowledge to process, however, and harder still to incorporate it into performance. A seasoned dancer usually consigned to supporting roles, Portman gets a chance to audition for Odette thanks to the unexpected, not entirely voluntary departure of her company’s prima ballerina. Her director (Vincent Cassel) has concerns about her ability to dance Odette’s dark counterpart, the Black Swan. She has the technique, but Cassel keeps suggesting she lacks the shadows around her soul or the sexual magnetism for the part, even as he slips his tongue into her mouth. Meanwhile, Mila Kunis, a new addition to the company, starts lingering in the margins and showing up wherever Portman happens to be, like something from a dream. She dances the Black Swan effortlessly.
Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique give Black Swan the look of a degraded nightmare and the intensity of a shared hallucination. Dealing in the same grand gestures and overstated themes as its balletic inspiration—while adding touches of The Red Shoes and Repulsion, plus its own atmosphere of unshakable dread—Black Swan is a florid, often lurid, completely enthralling film held in place by a disarming Portman, who rarely leaves the frame. A psychological thriller about the creative process, Black Swan lingers on the pain and repetition that allowed Portman’s character to reach ballet’s rarefied heights, and explores the effects of that dedication. (It isn’t just a film about ballet, either: As an actress, Portman has never seemed particularly convincing in Black Swan roles. And the casting of the outgoing ballet star, and the way dance chews women up and spits them out, consciously echoes Hollywood.) For the sake of art, she’s given up on life. When she embraces it, her art flourishes, but threatens to consume her. In the end, is the price of beauty worth it? The film provides an ecstatic “yes,” trailed by haunting echoes.