Does a genius need to be a little bit crazy to be great? Darren Aronofsky seems to think so. He returns to that idea in film after film, from “Pi” to “The Fountain” to “The Wrestler” to his latest, “Black Swan.” All of Aronofsky’s movies are about obsession, about people who take the things they love to unreasonable and frequently self-destructive extremes. His latest mad genius is Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a dancer struggling to cope with the pressure of being cast as the lead of a new production of the ballet “Swan Lake.” Just as her career reaches its pinnacle, her mind reaches its breaking point. A girl turning into a swan; that’s just supposed to be her role in the ballet. But when no one’s around, NIna feels funny. She sees things. Her back itches. Her toes stick together. She’s so committed she could be committed.
You hear artists talk about their work taking over their life, but that’s literally true for Nina; her life becomes a psychosis-induced production of “Swan Lake.” Her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is her handsome prince. Her rival in the company and for Thomas’ admiration, Lily (Mila Kunis), is her dark double. Nina is a technically gifted dancer but for her dual role in “Swan Lake” she will need to be more than that. “Perfection is not just about control,” Thomas tells her. “It’s also about letting go.” In everything he makes, Aronofsky wrestles with that same dilemma. His movies move like music. They begin under rigid formal control then build to feverish crescendos of emotion. “Black Swan” is no exception. Aronofsky has made it in such a way that it validates the theory of art set forth by its characters. Great art isn’t just technical brilliance. It’s messy. It takes chances.
Boy, does “Black Swan” take chances. The whole movie is told from Nina’s perspective and as she loses her mind, the film sort of loses its too. She starts to hallucinate, and the movie hallucinates right along with her. The ending, set amidst the frenzy of the company’s production of “Swan Lake,” is big and melodramatic in a way that might be too much for a cynical modern audience to bear.
That will be their loss. “Black Swan” is a powerful and terrifying movie — “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby” rolled into one with more than a little “Red Shoes” thrown in for good measure — and Nina, played by Portman in a mesmerizing performance, is one of the most fascinating characters in any film this year. At age 28, her career is already almost over. At this stage of her life, her connection to ballet is like a junkie’s to his drugs. These rituals — stretching, breaking in her toe shoes, nursing her bruises — once gave her pleasure. Now she can’t live without them, but she doesn’t particularly enjoy them either. Ballet used to be heroin, now it’s methadone.
Nina lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey) in a state of arrested emotional development in a room that belongs to a little girl. “He picked me, Mommy,” she says to Hershey when gets gets the part in “Swan Lake,” revealing all her issues in a single line of dialogue. Nina never grew up because her controlling stage mother and the rules of a young ballet dancer’s life didn’t allow it; her understanding of love and even her own sexuality is shockingly immature. She’s given her entire life to dance, but it’s not enough. Now dance wants her sanity as well.
From the perspective of the orchestra seats at the Koch Theater, ballet is human perfection: bodies telling stories through graceful movement, performing athletic feats that should be impossible. Using the same style of camerawork as “The Wrestler,” Aronofsky brings us close enough to see us the imperfections. Mirrors, at once so important and so cruel to a dancer, dominate the production design, fracturing and splitting characters into doubles of themselves. The use of color is particularly bold, contrasting the ordered world of Lincoln Center, with its blacks, whites and grays, with the blood reds of Nina’s increasingly frazzled mind.
The moving close-ups during the ballet numbers may have served a practical purpose — keeping us so close to Portman as she dances forces us to focus on her face and not on her feet — but it also represents a refreshing change of visual pace for dance movies. The camera moves with Portman and the rest of the dancers like another member of the company. We’re onstage with them, delighting in their talents and sharing in their miseries. Aronofsky lets us thrill in the in the act of creation without ever letting us forget the terrible sacrifices many artists make to entertain us.