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Portman finds beauty in tragedy in Aronofsky’s bizarre “Black Swan”

Natalie Portman embraces the demons of an unstable prima ballerina in "Black Swan."

“Black Swan,” like no other film released in 2010, is a tale full of sound and fury. It does not, however, signify nothing. The opposite is true — Darren Aronofsky’s strange, alluring beast of a motion picture has a number of grand purposes. It’s a melodrama with operatic peaks and valleys, a horror film nearly Gothic in its excess, an arty psychological thriller, a grim character study. Two things secure these many threads together: Natalie Portman’s astonishing performance and Aronofsky’s vision. The director places complete faith in her ability to dissolve herself into not one but two difficult characters. Portman does it so splendidly at times that her own sanity seems in peril.

That’s the kind of performance Aronofsky demands of his actors — total immersion, no excuses. In her own way, as mentally unstable ballerina Nina Sayers Portman goes just as far as Ellen Burstyn did in “Requiem for a Dream.” Both women have lost whatever pitiful coping mechanisms they had. In Nina’s case, it is not drugs that cause her complete break with reality; instead, it is a combination of people and their conflicting demands that turn a hairline fracture into a full-blown spiderweb of fissures ready to shatter. There is her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey, deserving of many awards), a domineering, creepy figure living vicariously through her daughter’s successes and failures. She hovers in a way that is suffocating and frightening. No less creepy is Thomas (Vincent Cassel, sublimely sleazy), the company director who beds his stars and fancies himself a revolutionary brilliant enough to reinvent a classic like “Swan Lake.” A textbook cad, he’s cast Nina as his new little princess, the Swan Queen in his pared-down production of “Swan Lake.” He sees the frail, virginal White Swan in Nina’s every move; what he wants is to push his meek ingénue into darker realms, where she can unearth the seductive, evil Black Swan within. Adding still more pressure is competitor Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer with a natural sensuality Thomas finds perfect for the Black Swan, and Beth (a near-unrecognizable Winona Ryder), the alcoholic has-been replaced by Nina as Thomas’ pet, and possibly his lover.

Told straight-forward or even ever-so-slightly skewed, “Black Swan” would be a worthwhile film, even a compelling one. But Aronofsky, with his affection for shuffling and reshuffling the prisms of reality on his characters, rarely cottons to linear storytelling. “Black Swan” is structured in such a way that the one thing Nina can never be sure of — the one thing the audience can never be sure of — is what is real and what is imagined. Is Nina beginning to sprout feathers from her shoulders and under her fingernails? Is Lily her enemy, her friend, or a representation of the darker impulses, the primal needs Nina represses? It’s a road Aronofsky fans know well, but his gift is that he makes every it feel new and personal and harrowing every time. The deeper into the Swan Queen role Nina goes, the more frequent and ghoulish her visions become. Eventually, it’s not possible to tell where the visions end and the real life begins. They could be one and the same; the film’s merging of reality and dreams/hallucinations/visions is a frenzied metaphor for the crash course Nina’s conscious and subconscious mind are set on. As she gives in to the chaos, lets go of her desire for perfection and her need for order, so must the audience. It’s the only way to accept a work like “Black Swan,” where the drama is played — in Clint Mansell’s bombastic score and the alternately sweeping/claustrophic cinematography — past the 10s. 

This may be the very personal story of one woman’s descent into madness (and, some might argue, a complete artistic breakthrough), but it has the timeless, universal feel of a Greek tragedy. Portman manages what few actresses could: to show not just the horror of this meltdown, but the beauty in it too. 

Grade: A