Black Swan (2010): Aronofsky’s Trashy Ballet Melodrama, Anchored by Natalie Portman’s

With Black Swan, the quintessentially independent director Darren Aronofsky adds another unsettling character study that is set within an eccentric and competitive social-professional milieu, this time around the ballet world.
The best thing about this film, which is trashy ad sleazy with a gloss of high-art poured over it, is Natalia Portman’s Oscar-caliber performance.  With some luck, Portman should earn Best Actress nomination, perhaps even the Oscar itself.
The movie, like previous Aronofsky films, such as “The Wrestler” and “Requiem of a Dream,” works on a number of levels. In capturing vividly the subculture of another enclosed milieu, “Black Swan” is at once a chronicle of a professional life as well as a psychological thriller, benefiting from a perspective that uses healthy dosages of (black) nasty humor, and offering insights into driven and obsessive personalities that would do anything to achieve and succeed
World-premiering as opening night of the 2010 Venice Film Fest, “Black Swan” played last week to great acclaim at the Toronto Film fest. Fox Searchlight, which released and did well with Aronofsky “The Wrestler,” has another potential winner in its hands, when it opens the picture in December, in time for end of the year awards season. The entrepreneurial studio faces the challenge of marketing a movie set in the upscale ballet world. Even so, the acting is superlative and the genre, darkly humorous thriller, should serve as functional marketing tools.
As a commentary on the interplay of art, ambition, and personality, “Black Swan” (a very apt title) bears resemblance to other movies about the ballet world, the classic 1948 “The Red Shoes” (one of my all-time favorite color films), as well as more superficially to “The Turning Point (1977), about the friendship of two aging ballerinas (Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft).
As a postmodern director, Aronofsky goes beyond these “soft” (by today’s standards) films to the extreme, presenting an intriguingly atmospheric and ultimately devastating study of the complex persona of young dancers, motivated by various forces, conscious and subconscious, legit and illegit.
Instead of the shabby, grungy, down and dirty world that defined “The Wrestler,” we get the portrait of the more upscale and noble ballet world that on the surface (and nominally) is more refined and purely aesthetic but actually just as ruthless and brutal as the world of wrestling (and boxing).
If “The “Wrestler” was a male-driven saga, “”Black Swan” is decidedly female-oriented, offering no less than four or five major females roles, all meaty and substantial. For that reason alone, Aronofsky and his script writers, Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz, and John McLaughlin, should be commended, too.
The talented and versatile Natalie Portman gives an Oscar-caliber performance as Nina, a young, virginal, initially innocent ballerina that has been dominated by her controlling monstrous mother (Barbara Hershey in a creepy comeback performance). From the start, Nina comes across as an ambitious girl whose professional drive runs strong, overwhelming any other force or need in her life.
In the opening scene, we get a glimpse of Nina, day-dreaming of the day when she would play the lead role in the classic Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “Swan Lake.” Back in reality, the question becomes, how does she accomplish that feat in the upcomong season of the prestigious reperotoire of Lincoln Center. It turns out that Nina must first learn and dance the part of the seductive Black Swan.
No ballet world (and movie) is complete without a svengali-like figure, and here it is a foreign-born man (as often is the case) French ballet maestro Thomas Leroy (the endlessly versatile Vincent Cassel, who can be seen right now to an adavntage in the epic French gangster bio-epic, “Mesrine”). As a director, Leroy is involved with his previous star ballerine, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder). Brief flashbacks show Beth’s career, its ups and downs—and inevitably out paths– in the ruthlessly competitive ballet world.
Without spoiling the fun of the intricate and elaborate plot, suffice is to say that Thomas tries to draw Nina out—against the wish and effort of her stage mother. Real tension ensues upon the admission into the company a new ballerina, Lily (the beautiful and photogenic Mila Kunis), who serves as Nina’s double—and soon her rival.
The two femme could not have been different. Unlike Nina, Lily is spontaneous, intuitive, and alluring, making her a dangerous threat to the more vet dancer. The tale’s second half centers on the peculiar, complex, and ultimately perverse relationship between Nina and Lily, which inevitably teeters on the verge of lesbianis (manifest in sort of a love scene), though this potentially controversial element would be open to various interpretations.
Aronofsky is not interested in evoking the idealized romantic vision that often shapes movies about ballet, most evident in the first half of Michael Powell and Emir Pressberger’s “The Red Showes.” In atmosphere and mentality, “Black Swan” is cloer to “All About Eve,” and I will not be surprised if critics and viewers draw parallels between Nina and Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) in the witty “All About Eve,” still the most sophsiticated look at the behind the scenes of the miliue of New York’s Broadway theater.
Composer Clint Mansell’s mencing, often macabre score both complements and offers the required tension with Tchaikovsky’s original and seminal music for “Swan Lake.” Moreover, the intricate sound design (always a strong element in Aronofsky’s work) suggests elements of a horror picture, which on some levels, “Black Swan” is.
As usual, Aronofsky is great with his actors.  His previous films have garnered well-deserved kudos and Oscar nominations for their performers, Ellen Burstyn in “Requiem of a Dream,” Mickey Rourke in an astonishing comeback performance in “The Wrestler.”
In her first role as a mature femme, Natalie Portman, who has been nominated in the Supporting Oscar league for Mike Nichols “Closer,” should get her first Best Actress nod for “Black Swan,” and Mila Kunsi, whose work was just acknowledged by a mjor prize at the just concluded Venice Film Fest, should be honored with a Supporting Oscar nomination.

Paulo Riviero contributed to this essay from Venice Film Fest.