Darren Aronofsky has made a darker version of THE RED SHOES. From a screenplay by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin, he takes the basic premise of the famed ballet Swan Lake and brings it to this psychological thriller. In trying to become the White Swan, a ballerina becomes the Black Swan.
That ballerina is Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, CLOSER), a naive and insecure dancer who dances with perfection, but lacks that passionate spark. Her company's impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, READ MY LIPS) is casting a new version of Swan Lake and is looking to replace the aging prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS). Nina desperately wants the role, but Thomas doesn't think she has what it takes to play the sensual side of the Black Swan. Could that be the new tattooed tough girl Lily (Mila Kunis, FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL)?
Unexpectedly Nina impresses Thomas and gets the part, but then the real mental pressure begins. Her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey, BEACHES), a failed dancer, demands nothing less than total discipline and obedience. Thomas is not what he seems; his intentions toward the young dancer seem ever changing. And what are the intentions of Lily? Nina knows every other dancer around her would kill to be in her position.
Portman infuses Nina with innocence, vulnerability and self-doubt. Psychologically she sells the crumbling of the young woman's psyche with subtly. Is she losing it or is she finally putting it all together? We're guessing right up until the end. Cassel and Kunis give their characters both ambiguity and nuance, which is crucial to helping build suspense. Hershey is like a stage mom from hell, but is she living vicariously through her daughter or becoming resentful? Many of these questions are left open ended, which only creates more unease.
Nina's struggle to find her dark side in order to play the Black Swan is handled by Portman and Aronofsky with a patient touch. It's not easy for Nina to embrace naughtiness after her whole life has been dedicated to becoming the perfect ballerina. There are two sexually charged scenes that will stick out in the viewers' minds. The second features Portman and Kunis together and will be remembered more quickly for having Portman and Kunis together. But it's a masturbation scene earlier that so perfectly underlines the feel and themes of the entire film. Nina is trying to let go, but it only ends up awkward and unsettling.
Her mental state is mirrored in a physical transformation as well. Her body is falling apart as her mind falls. The demands of the profession have taken a toll on her body. But could she be hurting herself on purpose too? What's with the sore on her back? There is a fantastical transformation at the end that gives the beautiful swan a frighteningly ugly make-over.
Aronofsky and the writers make us wonder about Nina's mental state right from the beginning. Portman makes us feel her vulnerability and desire to be the perfect dancer. As the work becomes more intense, the more precarious her mental stability becomes. We want her so badly to find her dark side, but fear so badly that she will succumb to it.