BLACK SWAN, a dizzying dig-it-or-damn-it thriller hit from 2010, concerns a ballerina, is set in the milieu of big-time ballet and revolves around a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”. But the protagonist’s profession, its art/sport and the beloved fairy tale composition are merely the framework for a queasy psychological horror story about—among a scorpion’s nest of things—control descending into madness. That cute plea for a tutu? Think it over. *
Intense dancer ‘Nina Sayers’ (Natalie Portman, frail steel) lands the key role in the New York City Ballet company production of “Swan Lake”. The demanding dual part not enough stress, Nina has to contend with the harsh testing of the artistic director (Vincent Cassel, in arrogant prick mode), sly goading from a sexy newcomer (Mila Kunis, wild thing mode), domination from her way-too-tight mother (Barbara Hershey, vampiric mode) and boozy spite from the company’s former queen bee (Winona Ryder, full-on bitch mode). Nina hurts herself, she sees things, she’s a walking (pirouetting) repository of abuse.
Dare & do director Darren Aronofsky, coming off a score about another demanding profession, The Wrestler, ensures the tension level is pitched to painful, the camerawork (Matthew Labatique) is bracing, the ick-factor plentiful. Nina bids fair to be one of the most inner & outer besieged female characters you could locate in a movie, a story, at work or anywhere outside of a lunatic asylum run by the inmates. That she’s pretty, talented and moving in a cultured swath of high society just adds more layers of grief. Front and center, stem to stern, Portman is splendid, a haunted third rail of quivering intensity. She walked off with an Oscar for Best Actress, her exposed nerves just enough to take the golden goal from her closest competition, Jennifer Lawrence in (the near flawless) Winter’s Bone. The production pulled nominations for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Film Editing. At the ticket booths, it made 25th place in the States, then more than doubled the domestic gross to elsewhere tally $329,400,000 worldwide, a stunning return of twenty-five times a modest price tag of $13,000,000.
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin. With Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Sebastian Stan, Kristina Anapau Mark Margolis. 108 minutes.
* Some critics did the die-and-went-to-heaven route. Many praised the acting while also tweaking the overload of outrageousness. Dissenters were as vicious as some of the people on screen. Though it came from the minefield of bleats “Rotten Tomatoes” and was issued by a industry-connected duo whose whole schtick is mean, self-satisfied snark, we do think they nailed the adulatory spew with poison-pen pith: “What were they trying to say? What happened?… You’re all pretending you know what it means.”