Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a featured dancer who finds herself locked in a web of competitive intrigue with a new rival at the company (Mila Kunis). Black Swan takes a thrilling journey through the psyche of a young ballerina whose starring role as the duplicitous swan queen turns out to be a part for which she becomes frighteningly perfect.

4
A darkly realised psychodrama.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The earliest risers got the seat at one of the first screenings of the first Friday of the Toronto International Film Festival. One of the most anticipated films at TIFF, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan played to a packed house that seemed to surrender to its unsettling balance of genre showmanship and gothic interiority; both titters and gasps were issued freely and often, and one got the sense that’s just how Aronofsky wanted it. A darkly realised psychodrama that veers regularly and without apology into high-kicking camp, Black Swan is the ballet epic for the fragile self-dramatist in your life; it follows aspiring soloist Nina (Natalie Portman) through the role of her career, and psychic devastation that pursuit wreaks on her.

When Nina sleeps she dreams of ballet—specifically of dancing the role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, a staple of ballet companies across the world, including the one Nina dances in at Lincoln Center. From the opening dream sequence through the lingering scenes of Nina waking, cracking every joint in her toes and starting the day, it is clear that Aronofsky is unconcerned with effacing all of the big, white, pink tutu-ed elephants haunting the genre of performance and specifically dance films. He will catch and tame them all, then turn to bigger demons.

So the gang is all here, and how: Nina has a bitter predecessor (Winona Ryder, cast to eerily extra-cinematic effect, much as Mickey Rourke was in The Wrestler) and an over-invested, infantilising mother (Barbara Hershey) whose own dance dreams were extinguished at her daughter’s conception. Her artistic director is a sexy svengali genius named Tomasz (Vincent Cassel and his nostrils in full, indignant flare), and her chief tormenter is an upstart named Lily (Mila Kunis). A long, lithe ringer among a corps of tiny dancers, Lily also embodies the mysterious sensuality that Nina needs in order to nail both sides of the Swan Queen: the white and the black.

'Show me your black swan!" Tomasz orders—one of his hammier line deliveries in a script that does not skimp on that particular food group. Nina’s technique is fine; all that’s keeping her from solo success (and status as the fickle Tomaz’s head pet) is her 'frigidity," a word that recurs in reference to her as often as its more accurate homonym, fragility. Aronofsky runs with the script’s allusions to an unabashedly Freudian sexual repression, linking it to Nina’s hysterical madness with a vigor that aligns it more closely with a film like Splendor In The Grass or Repulsion (or the biography of Zelda Fitzgerald), than even The Red Shoes. It’s a dated, somewhat tiresome trope in an otherwise rare and gratifying portrait of female identity in flux, but then this is essentially an extreme rendering of the Swan Lake story, and it is 2010, which means instead of discreet cutaways we’ve got much meaningful crotch-grabbing and at least one graphic rendering of oral sex.

The casting is intuitive—Portman has built a career on making the quintessential ballet face—but she is also a startlingly adept dancer. Although Aronofsky shoots many of the dance scenes tightly, effectively making a deft handheld camera her partner and adding dynamism to her steps, he also makes a point of showing enough of her footwork to make it clear she’s as devoted as her character. The intensity of her performance—and of the portrayal of a pursuit of perfection and artistry at all costs—derives both depth and a measure of dread from the extent to which Portman clearly dedicated herself to the role.

It’s a guiding reflexivity in a film filled with doubles, layers, signifiers, and mirrors. Many, many mirrors. Fragmenting, identity-warping, shattering mirrors: Aronofsky has a theme and he knows what to do with it—done to death cliché be damned. Loaded with trick shots and head-turning twists, Black Swan has technique for days; even more impressive is its nerve. In Portman’s exquisite face—which seems both viscerally expressive and frozen into a mask of terror at once—he has found a center that arranges some of his lesser impulses (heady involution; unlawful ponderousness) into a dark but stunningly harmonious orbit.