Black Swan is that rare holiday Oscar contender that is a movie for all seasons, a film that is all things to all people.
Artful, epic, operatic even, this thriller set in the world of ballet challenges the viewer with its intelligence, depth and wit. It has dance sequences — a production of Swan Lake is its backdrop — of a caliber to mollify ballet purists, and terror to tempt even horror's hard-core fans. It has titillation — lithe, sexy and bi-curious dancers played by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. And their performances — brittle and paranoid, menacing and confident — are what Oscar nominations are made of.
The movie is a singular achievement in genre-bending, a brilliant, poetic ballet battle royale staged by the director of The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky.
Portman, in the best performance of her career, stars as Nina, a dancer plucked from the corps de ballet and promoted to principal just as the company's artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) plans a new production of the ballet staple Swan Lake.
"A new production needs a new Swan Queen," he proclaims. But that means he has to force retirement on the current principal dancer in the company, played with demented grief by Winona Ryder.
Witnessing that cruelty makes Nina fret. Seeing a sexy new dancer from San Francisco (Kunis, in her best role yet) added to the company worries Nina. That she can't get a handle on both sides of the lead role — the elegant White Swan and the more earthy Black Swan, makes her downright paranoid.
"I never see you lose yourself," Thomas complains. That sort of abandon informs the Black Swan in the ballet, and Nina must try to add that risky, impulsive side to her personality away from the barre or lose the coveted big break that has come her way.
But Nina lives at home, smothered by her ballet-obsessed mother (Barbara Hershey). Nina can't be paranoid over her dancing, her career and her weight by herself. Mother is always there to amp up the paranoia, serving her birthday cake that she won't let her eat.
Maybe Nina's worst fears are true. Is the new dancer teasing her, testing her and sabotaging her? Do the artistic director's come-ons reflect genuine interest? Is she merely his next conquest, or is he twisted enough to think a little boom-boom in the bedroom will improve her performance as the Black Swan?
Unlike Portman, who dances quite well and quite a bit in the film, Kunis doesn't have to fake much dancing. All she needs to do to make Lily a menace is show up, dark and exotic and confident. Ryder, likewise, doesn't have to dance, only to look thin enough and haggard enough to be a ballerina raging that her star is fading. Hershey's Mommy Dearest can seem nurturing even as she is living vicariously through her porcelain doll of a daughter.
Portman brilliantly conveys Nina's sexually confused, love-starved naïveté, a girl who has scratched herself until she's bloody, a nervous wreck for whom it won't take much to send her over the deep end. With Lily around, Nina might not be imagining the scheming and backstabbing she senses around her.
Aronofsky perfectly captures the fragile psyche that underlies the muscular but seemingly delicate body of a dancer. And at the first sight of blood — a broken toenail can be a disaster, scratches showing through the back of a leotard can finish Nina — he ups the ante, taking Black Swan beyond the madness-as-art parable of the classic ballet film The Red Shoes and into something more entertaining and more frightening. And that makes Black Swan one of the best films of 2010.