Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is about committing to, and struggling for your art; striving for not mere excellence but perfection. 25 year-old Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has dedicated her life to the ballet and nothing less than than being named lead in the company's new production of Swan Lake will satisfy her drive, which borders on the extreme.
And once Nina is cast as the White Swan, it's only a small pirouette to her downward spiral; she's already highly strung to begin with. Living and breathing ballet 24-7, and living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with your mother (a precise Barbara Hershey), whose own thwarted career (which is made clear was abandoned due to Nina's conception) is a motivator – and warning – to do better, will do that to you.
And the arrival of a possible replacement, San Franciscan import, Lily (Mila Kunis), doesn't improve matters. Lily represents everything Nina is not and wishes she could could be; free-spirited, fearless, sexual. As company director, Thomas (a narcissistic and just plain nasty, Vincent Cassel), points out, Nina has technique but no soul, no passion. She can easily play the White Swan, the ballet's innocent but doomed heroine, but can she go deep and dark enough for the evil twin that is the Black Swan?
Aronofsky, working from a screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz, is both clever and obvious with the parallels between Nina's trials and those of the heroine in Tchaikovsky's ballet. Which isn't to say he is anything less than original, daring and inspired. There is so much going on in Black Swan, you may need degrees in psychoanalysis and dream analysis, not to mention a copy of Ballet for Dummies just to keep up.
Aronofsky, and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, use mirrors – in Nina's home, the rehearsal studio, the dressing room – as a constant motif to represent the divisive state of Nina's mind; the struggle between good and evil; and as a tool of projection, which also takes human form in Lily.
Much like he did with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008), the director's previous film about putting one's body on the line for your art, Aronofsky pushes Natalie Portman harder and further than any director or role has before. It's not just that she studied dance for 10 months to prepare for the role of Nina, but that she gets so fully inside her head – and it is not a pleasant place to be.
All the Oscars buzz, which began with the film's premiere at Venice in September 2010 and was confirmed with this week's Golden Globe win for Best Actress, is not unwarranted. Portman, Aronofsky and the film will all be in line gold statuettes come late February.