Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a daring and scintillating psychological thriller about a ballet dancer driven to madness in her all-consuming desire for perfection. Natalie Portman gives an astonishing performance as Nina Sayers, a tortured ballerina who harbors obsessive ambition and repressed lesbian proclivities.
From the film’s opening frames, we are plunged into the suffocating atmosphere of Nina’s world, confined mostly to the masochism of dance rehearsals and the cramped Upper West Side apartment she shares with her stage mother (Barbara Hershey). Isolated and off-balance, Nina suffers from hallucinations and a demonic inner life as she prepares for a star turn in Swan Lake.
Nina’s unrelenting quest for perfection focuses on her transformation from White Swan into Black Swan, a dual role she must play in the avant-garde production. Her choreographer, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is ruthlessly critical of her efforts. While he feels confident that Nina personifies the virginal White Swan, he doesn’t see the greedily destructive sexual appetite of the Black Swan. He punishes Nina with harsh judgments, although he has propelled her to stardom by dumping the company’s principal dancer, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder).
To provoke Nina, Leroy threatens to replace her with a newcomer, Lilly (Mila Kunis), a charismatic rebel from San Francisco who embodies the Black Swan. The antagonistic relationship between Nina and Lilly eventually morphs into something much more.
Cassel based his characterization of Leroy on George Balanchine, the legendary choreographer with a reputation for sexually manipulating female dancers of the New York City Ballet. True to form, Leroy tries to seduce Nina, hoping to evoke a more authentic Black Swan performance. Sensing her apprehension, he dismisses her as frigid and assigns masturbation as homework. “Go home and touch yourself,” he tells her tersely. She’s an apt pupil, but after the seduction goes nowhere, we discover that Nina isn’t as hot for teacher as she is for Lilly.
Even without such titillating lesbian content, Black Swan is a striking, memorable tour de force that moviegoers will be buzzing about, right up until the Oscars. It’s not without weak moments—some may find the sex gratuitous and the violence resembling B-movie horror schlock. But this film is a landmark achievement for Aronofsky, showcasing the performance of Portman‘s career. (Who knew she could play gay?)
Black Swan is in select theaters now.