Natalie Portman plays dancer Nina Sayers, who's thrilled when her director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) casts her as both the White and Black Swans in her company's upcoming production of Swan Lake. But Nina is struggling: while she has no problem at embodying the innocent, virginal White Swan, Thomas insists that she is too restrained when dancing the jealous, seductive Black Swan. Only through releasing her dark impulses can Nina liberate the Black Swan within her, but as it starts to spread its wings, Nina starts losing her grip.
To call Black Swan a towering artistic achievement would be an understatement. Darren Aronosfsky, who has a way of getting his actors to turn themselves inside-out (Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler or Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream), draws a powerful career-best performance out of Natalie Portman, whose transformation from 'sweet girl' Nina Sayers to the confident but vicious Black Swan is one of the best descents into madness put on film. Another impressive feat is her dancing, which any ballerina will tell is damned hard to do! That she is able to exude character and arc on the stage while maintaining complete discipline of technique is astonishing.
But this is still Aronofsky's show, and what a terrifying show it is. He puts us inside Nina Sayers' head for a stylized exploration of a tragic artistic process. The screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin deserve credit for providing a strong, thematically rich story, but it's more by Aronofsky's direction that we understand Nina's doomed journey. A combination of things release the Black Swan within: oppression from her domineering mother (awesomely played by Barbara Hershey), lust for her director, paranoia toward a rival dancer (Mila Kunis), self-stimulation, self-inflicted injury, and most of all, jealousy of what she thinks she cannot be.
Helping to put us inside Nina's crumbling mind is DP Matthew Lebatique. He has lots of fun with mirrors and reflections in this film, but none of it is gimmicky. It's all used to evoke relevant themes such as the duality of human nature and as a striking symbol for the destructive capability one's own self-image can have on an individual. The dance sequences are dazzlingly shot as well, intricately gliding about the stage, capturing the dancers' faces and movements with dizzying elegance. The man deserves an Academy Award. Plain and simple.
No less deserving of Oscar is Aronofsky's sound team, who make the free-fall of Nina's sanity as much a sonic experience as a visual one. Well-appointed sound effects (wings fluttering, laughter, white noise) are cleverly laced throughout key moments to mirror Nina's thoughts and anxieties.
Oscar nominations for Picture, Director, Actress, Cinematography, and Sound had better be coming. I'd also be thrilled to see Amy Westcott's terrific character-serving costumes recognized.
**** out of ****