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.
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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).