“Black Swan” announces its intensity with a gloriously suspenseful opening scene. As the intimidating leader of a premier ballet company strolls through an assembly of his ballerinas, tapping those who will be considered for a lead role, the anxiety builds for Nina, a perfection-obsessed prodigy played masterfully by Natalie Portman. Will she be tapped?
Nina’s dread in the scene is communicated expertly by Portman, who frowns and fidgets with mounting apprehension as, one by one, other girls are selected. As I watched, my stomach was twisting — and not from the embarrassing amount of Red Vines I had wolfed down by that point. I hadn’t even got to know Nina yet, but I was feeling every ounce of her distress, as I would often throughout the movie.
“Black Swan” is about ballet like “Apocalypse Now” is about motorboats: the real story is what’s going on in the main characters’ minds. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call “Black Swan” a horror movie, as a couple scenes are quite gory and several are charged with palpable fear about what will happen next. The film also has a few sexual moments that are nudity-free but plenty steamy.
Movie buffs will recognize some touches that are becoming trademarks of director Darren Aronofsky, a recently minted superstar thanks to “The Wrestler.” Like “Pi,” his first film, “Black Swan” is told from the perspective of a person who frequently hallucinates. Almost from the start, Aronofsky skillfully twists what’s real and what’s imagined, leaving the boundary unclear and giving viewers an extended, first-person view of sanity slipping away.
Barbara Hershey is painfully convincing as Nina’s jealous and controlling mother. Her character — like Ellen Burstyn’s in “Requiem for a Dream,” Aronofsky’s tragedy about drug addiction — offers a look at mental instability from a different angle: in a parent, through the eyes of a child.
Mila Kunis steals several scenes as the sexy new ballerina in town — is she a conniving rival, or does she just want to be friends? Then there’s Vincent Cassel, the charismatic and sleazy head of the ballet company — is he trying to take advantage of Nina, or just trying to take her dancing to the next level? Nina’s paranoia clouds her perspective more and more as the film progresses.
Overall, “Black Swan” is a dark and sometimes scary movie that is not suitable for children or anyone seeking light holiday fare. But if you’re in the mood a well-done psychological thriller that will make you squirm — or if you’re a Natalie Portman fan who is willing to stomach grim material to see her at her best — give “Black Swan” a whirl.
For “Black Swan” showtimes, check the Hillcrest Cinemas Landmark Theater