It's difficult to describe the intensity with which director Darren Aronofsky relates his nightmarish, erotic thriller about life imitating art in the high pressure world of ballet. Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a beautiful and delicate young ballerina who becomes obsessed with achieving balletic perfection, after receiving the starring role in her company's rendition of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. As Swan Queen, Nina must master the parts of both the good white and the evil black swan. The pressure to perfect both, to be good and evil, drives her to the brink of madness.
Black Swan exemplifies the palpable synergy of director and star. Aronofsky wields the power of perspective like a deadly weapon: we step, jump, and pirouette in Nina's worn and bloody ballet shoes. His impressionistic brio - and sheer directorial force - fully aestheticizes Nina's mounting delirium with, often gruesome, hallucinatory imagery. As she descends deeper into a schizo-type realm of delusion, the viewer gets to partake (more than a little uncomfortably) in her whirlwind and maniacal dance.
With a style that favors close-ups and hand held camera work, the director emphasizes just how small Nina's world really is. The only people in her life are: a perversely controlling stage mother played by Barbara Hershey, a borderline abusive director (Vincent Cassel) - who uses sexuality as means of manipulating the perfect performance; and a seductive understudy, Lily, played by Mila Kunis. Lily, is essential to Nina's growing paranoia as she is never able to discern whether Lily is a friend or a jealous saboteur. But none are as critical of Nina as she is of herself: practicing until her toenails split, picking at her fingernails until they gush blood, neurotically scratching ribbons in her upper back. It's grotesque stuff.
Aronofsky seems to revel in Nina's misery putting his protagonist on the proverbial rack. But Natalie Portman is up fo every bit of physical or psychological torment her director can dish. She validates Aronofsky's twisted vision. Her soft voice and delicate allure realizes Nina with sympathetic human characteristics and potent human emotions: passion, repression, loneliness, and fear. Her turn to the dark side and her slipping hold on reality becomes all the more horrific because we know and care about her. In her portrayal of a girl's self-destructive pursuit of transcendence, Portman may just have achieved it herself. It's an oscar-calibre performance.
It would seem that a film about ballet - the most graceful of human movement - would employ a style that reflected the art it portrayed, but other than clever use of mirrors and reflections to symbolize Nina's growing duality, Aronofsky goes the complete opposite direction: employing about as much subtlety as a freight train. But in the end it seems that was the point. This highly sexualized, and seriously disturbing, ballet horror show - that's something like Center Stage by way of Repulsion - is unforgettable and about as intense as movies get. The film's contrasting style and subject matter is meant to remind us that a person's outward beauty is sometimes suppressing a dark, wicked other half trying to get out.