Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.”

by Bill Wine

Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

You may think of wrestling and ballet as residing at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, but this psychological thriller about a ballerina makes them seem staged in the same ring.

“Black Swan” (2010) was and is an intense, outlandish, excessive, and fascinating melodrama, cinematically choreographed by director Darren Aronofsky as if it were a follow-up to his “The Wrestler.” He could have called it, simply and in the same vein, The Ballerina.

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a totally focused, high-strung, and unstable New York City ballerina starting rehearsals at Lincoln Center, where she is to star in a new production of Swan Lake.

The company’s artistic director, played by Vincent Cassel, has cast her in the dual lead role of Odette/Odile, but wonders if she’s as emotionally ready as she is technically competent for the good swan/bad swan gig. He knows she will be fine as Odelle, the innocent and graceful White Swan, but wonders whether she is so repressed that she cannot get in touch with her dark, manipulative, seductive side sufficiently to play the doppelganger title character.

So maybe he’s just testing her when he comes on to her after hours.

Meanwhile, her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina, keeps a close watch on everything her daughter does in the cramped Manhattan apartment they share while denying to herself that she’s living vicariously through her kid; the troupe’s newest member and Nina’s nearest rival, the uninhibited Lily (Mila Kunis), stands by, ready to step into the role(s), and making insinuating but ambiguous comments to Nina; and the replaced prima ballerina (Winona Ryder), just put out to ballet pasture against her will, brushes Nina off resentfully as she makes a graceless exit. 

Despite the esoteric world-of-ballet setting, Aronofsky shows us his thriller’s edginess right away, taking great pains to demonstrate that the level of extreme pain that Portman’s unhinged Nina suffers in Black Swan” is akin to what Mickey Rourke’s Randy subjects himself to inThe Wrestler.”

Aronofsky keeps the sense of dread in the forefront throughout his thriller, which plays like a horror film about a monster within, and shows us Nina’s dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, delusions, and fantasies in a way that keeps us off-balance about what’s real and what’s not, just as she is. And although we can see that this human White Swan is certainly saying goodbye, willy nilly, to her innocence — and perhaps going mad in the process — we’re never completely sure how much of this is in her mind and how much is manifested by her actual behavior. After all, it’s Nina who provides the point of view and she is anything but a reliable witness.

The script is an exploration of obsession and the punishing blood, sweat, and tears sometimes, if not often, demanded by art.

Oscar winner (for Best Lead Actress) Portman is stupendous in her most demanding and demonstrative role yet as the tunnel-visioned, tightly wound, sexually confused, self-torturing, and perhaps justifiably paranoid artist. This is a juicy role and she is more than up to it, turning in a full-bodied performance while doing most of her own dancing.

This is an engrossing, visceral, noirish backstage psychodrama about a dual-natured ballerina wrestling with her inner demons as she chases artistic purity. “Black Swan” isn’t perfect, but its bold if not outrageous attempt to dance close to the flame of perfection is downright thrilling.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.

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