Does 'Black Swan' Bring Out Natalie Portman's Dark Side?

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Fox Searchlight Pictures


"When I look at you, all I see is the White Swan," a domineering, predatory ballet director (Vincent Cassell) tells the prima ballerina (Natalie Portman) he has cast as the lead in Swan Lake. "Yes, you're beautiful, fearful, fragile—ideal casting. But the Black Swan? It's a hard fucking job to dance both." The scene, which takes place early in Darren Aronofsky's psychosexual thriller Black Swan, is a kind of meta-scene: a challenge issued not only to the ballerina but to Portman herself, a pointed appraisal of the actress's work to date.

Over the years, Portman's onscreen persona has been that of Good Girl incarnate: sweet but brittle, blessed with beauty but not its accompanying self-assurance. Her attempts to play against type have been awkward ones: an anemic Ann Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl, the world's least world-weary stripper in Closer. Her turn as Princess Padme in George Lucas's latter Star Wars trilogy, meanwhile, very nearly left her career entombed in porcelain.

Portman's role as Nina the ballerina in Black Swan is her most mature to date, though not precisely her most grownup. (That would likely be her impressively modulated performance as a quasi-widow in last year's Brothers.) Like Portman herself, Nina is a portrait in extended adolescence, teetering between girl-dom and womanhood, full of promise not yet quite fulfilled. She lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey, a portrait in maternal monstrosity), a bitter ex-ballerina who gave up her career to raise Nina alone. (Dad, it is suggested, was a backstage seducer.) Nina's existence seems to consist entirely of training, auditioning, rehearsing, stressing herself to the brink of insanity, and abusing her body in ways both conventional (bulimia) and esoteric (the mysterious scrapes and scratches on her body appear to be self-inflicted).

As he did in his previous film, The Wrestler, Aronofsky dwells on the physical demands of his protagonist's chosen métier: then, it was steroids and stitches and (in one memorable instance) staplers; now, it is sundered toenails and dislocated diaphragms and ballet shoes etched deep with a knife blade for traction. (These are in addition to a variety of bodily transformations—webbed feet? an incipient wing feather?—that may or may not exist only in Nina's mind.) In surveying such mortifications of the flesh, Aronofsky captures not only the agony, but the devotion: in his hands, The Passion of the Christ might have amounted to more than a sanctified snuff film. But whereas The Wrestler's Randy "the Ram" Robinson (played with collapsed-star gravity by Mickey Rourke) at least found offstage camaraderie with his onstage nemeses, Nina's world is one of lithe, lovely backstabbers.

The film elides the details of Swan Lake's plot, focusing on the duality of Odette (the perfect, elegant "White Swan") and Odile (the carnal, passionate "Black Swan"), and the need for the consummately Odette-y Nina to discover her inner Odile in order to dance both parts. The theme of doubling is omnipresent: between Nina and her mother; between Nina and the company's "aging" thirtysomething star (Winona Ryder), who is being ushered ungenerously off the stage; and most of all between Nina and Lily "from San Francisco" (Mila Kunis), her Black-Swan mirror image, erotic and uncontrollable. Is Lily, in whose face Nina often sees her own, real or merely projection? Aronofsky, working from a script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin, takes his time before offering answers, and those he bestows are seldom clear.

Black Swan is vivid and engrossing, teetering between trash and art, a sleek exploitation borrowing from (among others) Fight Club and The Fly, Mulholland Drive and Persona. When finally we witness Portman's transformation from tentative, neurotic Nina into the captivating Black Swan, the metamorphosis is well worth the wait. (Though, it should perhaps be noted, it is a role she dances rather than lives, and even that only briefly. Whether Portman can sustain such dark charisma remains to be seen.)

Yet for all the film's unsettling pleasures, which linger evocatively, its conclusion is a disappointment, at once too neat and not neat enough. It offers neither the inevitable culmination of its preceding elements—many of which, in retrospect, seem to have been thrown in largely for effect—nor the grand grotesquerie toward which the film had appeared to be building. In the end, for all its imagination and artistry, Aronofsky's film achieves neither the pristine elegance of the white swan nor the hallucinatory depravity of the black. It fades, instead, to gray.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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