The film is a thing of horrifying beauty, a gorgeous nightmare set in the world of elite ballet where grace is only achieved through years of punishment. That unforgiving world is Nina Sayers’ whole life. Played in a virtuoso performance by Natalie Portman, Nina is a technically brilliant but emotionally stilted dancer with the New York ballet company who dreams of leaving the corps and becoming the prima ballerina. She gets her shot when the arrogant artistic director decides to put on a reimagined production of “Swan Lake.”
And that is when things start to get freaky. The story is a story within a story. Everything, it seems, has a mirror image. The ballet company is performing “Swan Lake,” about a good swan and her evil twin. Nina looks remarkably like the new ballerina in the corps, Lily (played with irresistible smolder by Mila Kunis), who is also her understudy. And like in “Swan Lake” where the Swan Queen is rivaled by the Black Swan, uptight Nina feels threatened by seductive Lily.
Nina is sheltered in every way – she is a slip of a woman who still lives with her overbearing, stifling mother (played with creepy abandon by Barbara Hershey) and gets tucked in to bed every night in her pink childhood room surrounded by overstuffed teddy bears. Their relationship is the very definition of toxic, and not in the fun, dance-club Britney Spears way.
It’s hard to overstate how beautiful and how powerful Natalie is in this role. Some actors inhabit their parts, she shrinks into hers – both literally and figuratively. She does most of her own dancing and much has already been made of the months of rigorous training and strict diet she underwent to prepare to become this tiny dancer. Her Nina is brittle, driven, timid and obsessed. She is transcendent and terrifying and you can’t take your eyes off her magnificent face – nor can the camera. If Natalie isn’t a lock for the Oscar, she will certainly be in a caged death match with Annette Bening for the trophy come February.
In a way, “Black Swan” is the perfect female companion piece to director Darren Aronofsky’s last picture, “The Wrestler.” Both are about bone-crushing physicality and living solely for one’s art. But “Black Swan” takes the fetishism of ritual, discipline and pain to new heights. Nails split, toes crack – even a hangnail is not just a hangnail.
What is real, what isn’t real, what is a phantasmagorical paranoid lesbian fever dream? The experience is intense and trippy and gory and sexy and crazy and beautiful and painful, all at once. But mostly, just really fucking intense.
Things become unhinged in the best possible way. The movie is grandiose and overblown, preposterous and campy. Parts are even a little cliché. But it’s those very imperfections that make “Black Swan” so viscerally exciting. Like a dancer spinning precariously on point, the movie teeters on the edge of disaster.
But let’s get to why you’re really here. How was the sex between Natalie and Mila? Short version: Hot. Long version: Really hot. Seriously, even if the film wasn’t great – which is it – that scene alone is worth the ticket. Once this comes out on DVD I predict much rewinding, so much so that there might be a slight skip at one particular point on the disc. Have I mentioned that it’s hot?
Taut, claustrophobic, intimate, alive, the film crackles with manic energy. This is a movie that reminds me why I love the movies. To sit in the dark for two hours and become completely absorbed by a story is a sort of black magic. And when the spell is cast as bewitchingly as it is in “Black Swan,” you’re more than happy to fall under its exquisite madness.
UPDATE: To see when “Black Swan” is coming to a theater near you, check out the upcoming rollout dates. Then go see for yourself how everything is terrifyingly beautiful at the ballet.