For all the talk about girl-on-girl action and backstage ballet drama in the eagerly awaited “Black Swan,” opening in Atlanta on Friday, it’s the dark tone of the film that leaves an impression. You’ll need a cocktail afterwards.
After months of video snipppets and anticipation, Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers (top photo), a New York ballerina who lives with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), herself a former dancer. Erica is domineering but also a big supporter, making sure her daughter gets enough sleep at night and convincing her she’s bound for greatness.
When the head of the ballet company Thomas (Vincent Cassel) picks Nina to star in his revisionist version of “Swan Lake,” Nina herself is startled. Thomas is open about the fact that she is perfect for the White Swan aspect of the part but is hoping he can help her find the Black Swan in herself.
That news doesn’t go over well with Beth (Winona Ryder), the company’s former star dancer and Thomas’ ex.
New to the troupe is Lily (Mila Kunis), who is everything Nina is not. Nina seems obsessed with her career. She has no outside life and in her pursuit of perfection almost never eats, passing up even a slice of celebratory cake from her mother. Lily is free spirited, sexual and unafraid. The two women become friends over drinks one night. When it is announced that Lily is her understudy, though, Nina feels threatened.
The backstage drama is right up a gay man’s alley – but this is dark material, folks. If you want catty one liners and camp, try “Burlesque.” As Nina gets ready for her performance, the film wavers back and forth between reality and tone, often disturbing, often bloody.
Portman jumps into this role wholeheartedly. Her physical preparation is remarkable—apparently, she spent the better part of a year preparing for the dancing moments—but the emotional terrain she goes through is more impressive. As she tries to find her inner Black Swan, is all that Nina experiences in her head or real?
Much has been made about the sex scene between Portman and Kunis (second photo). It certainly lives up to its hype—with the two coming back to Nina’s apartment after drinks and kissing heartily before Lily migrates south and orally pleases the inexperienced, writhing Nina, goosebumps all over her body.
Director Darren Aronofsky’s best films deal with inner demons—Ellen Burstyn strung out on drugs and having her refrigerator come to life on her in “Requiem for a Dream” and Mickey Rourke taking punches in the ring effortlessly in “The Wrestler” but unable to deal with the outside world’s jabs.
The director goes over the top at times, but even when “Black Swan” is lurid and silly, his affection for the genre is exhilarating, as is the enthusiasm of his cast. The supporting players are terrific, especially Hershey, Cassel and Kunis. It’s also nice to see Winona Ryder in front of a camera again instead of stuffing blouses into her purse.
It’s ultimately Portman’s show, though. Nina , with her pale, wounded face, and her bone-thin body, takes it all in, and her determination to make the role work is scary. This is one of the best performances of the year.
I certainly wouldn’t want to be an Oscar voter trying to make a Best Actress call between a long overdue Annette Bening in “The Kids Are all Right” and Portman’s career performance here.
“Black Swan” is now playing in metro Atlanta theaters.
Jim Farmer is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and public relations professional specializing in film promotions. He has been a theater and pop-culture critic for more than a dozen years and is the director of Atlanta’s annual Out On Film gay and lesbian film festival.