Pressure is a funny thing. It can create diamonds, it can crush eggs, and if you are an emotionally unstable ballet dancer, it can do both.
“Black Swan” takes us inside the rise and fall of a timid dancer named Nina Sayers. Nina is brilliantly played by Natalie Portman who endured a year’s worth of ballet boot camp in preparation for the role.
Nina is technically proficient but is a bit of a wallflower and she seems as surprised as anybody when she lands the coveted role of The Swan Queen in her company’s production of “Swan Lake.”
The ballet requires Nina to play twin roles. Her drive for perfection makes her perfect as the White Swan, but she struggles to perform in the dual role of the seductress Black Swan. Her demanding and oh-so-French director Thomas (played with perfect artistic pomposity by Vincent Cassel) is constantly urging her to let go of herself, which turns out not to be the best advice for someone who barely has a toehold on reality.
“Black Swan” was directed by Darren Aronofsky, a fine filmmaker whose name is so lyrically awesome it sounds like it should be shouted in a game of hide-and-go-seek.
Aronofsky is a bit obsessed with the human body; most notably to the limits it can be pushed. Be it with drugs (“Requiem for a Dream), staple guns and barbed wire (“The Wrestler”) or finally ballet, he unflinchingly focuses on the horrifying extremes people willingly subject their bodies.
What is most fascinating here in “Black Swan” is how something as beautiful and graceful as ballet can behind the scenes feature ugly injuries like torn muscles, separated ribs or bloodied toes.
For Nina, who feels such pressure for perfection thanks greatly to her doting stage-mother (coolly played by Barbara Hershey), tiny flaws like a hangnail or rash become causes for alarm and almost panic.
Yet even with all the focus on the physical, it is the psychological journey Portman and Aronofsky take us on that makes “Black Swan” unforgettable.
The plot structure subtly mirrors that of “Swan Lake,” with Aronofsky even going as far as scoring the movie with Tchaikovsky’s original music.
Nina’s grip on sanity becomes tenuous as she is pushed even further by a seemingly well-meaning rival dancer (Mila Kunis) and the reality of the movie starts to bend around Nina as we see what she sees and struggle to determine what is real.
Aronofsky gets a bit heavy-handed and manipulative here, but he can be forgiven thanks mostly to the painstaking effort that goes into setting up the film’s final act.
Truthfully “Black Swan” is about one thing and one thing only: Natalie Portman. The camera lingers on her from beginning to end and she is nothing short of mesmerizing.
In what is unquestionably the performance of her career, Portman takes Nina from mousy to unhinged so effortlessly she is actually able to instill the terror of looming insanity not only on her character but on the audience as well.
This performance should vault Portman to the front of the race for the Best Actress Oscar and with 10 movies in play for Best Picture, don’t be surprised if you see “Black Swan” lock down a nomination there as well.
“Black Swan” is a movie that will stick with you, as haunting as it is beautiful you’ll wind up wondering why more ballet dancers aren’t insane.
“Black Swan” is rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.
▲ Mat DeKinder (email@example.com) was once described by a guy named Nate as “the Jackie Moon of film critics.” He appears courtesy of Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis.