Ballet, an art of grace and subtlety, is the subject of Darren Aronofsky’s seminal film Black Swan.  While it most certainly is a gorgeous film, it by no means is graceful or subtle.  It tells the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a dancer so enveloped by her insecurities and ambitions that she nearly drowns in them.  When she learns that her dance company will be premiering a new version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, she will do whatever it takes to win the coveted lead role.  Her self-destructive journey to the top leads the audience along a compelling road less traveled.

Nina, a strikingly thin yet gorgeous woman, spends her days dancing endlessly at her prestigious New York City dance company and her nights fretting about her appearance and poise.  She must constantly pop her joints, crack her ankles, and clean the blood from her frayed toe nails.  While certainly beautiful on the outside, it’s quite clear this girl is enduring severe agony to dance in Swan Lake.  Her passion, or better yet, her obsession is fueling her self-destructive tendencies.  Her mother (Barbara Hershey) only makes matters worse by pressuring her to work harder and longer. 

Nina’s sense of control spirals further away from her upon the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), a sensual new dancer who has a looser and more assured vibe than her tense, precise style.  The artistic director (Vincent Cassel) eventually merits Nina the role of both the black and the white swan, but is unsure that she is capable of pulling off both roles.  Nina is a perfect fit for the innocuous White Swan, but can she invoke the dark mentalities and motion of the Black Swan?  

The pressure to perform better brings her to the brink of madness, and she begins to suffer from severe hallucinations.  Some of these have real world consequences which begin to blur the line between what she’s imagining and what’s real.  It’s as if we, as an audience, have a first-class ticket into the mind of a woman gone crazy.  Aronofsky, with his incisive direction and tremendous use of sound, truly renders a volatile environment for Nina.

Natalie Portman is utterly breathtaking as Nina, lending the character tremendous depth and scope.  The character she has crafted is beautiful and violent in equal measures, and despite some of the sadistic motions she makes, we never feel anything but sorry for her poor, shattered soul.  It’s a character that could have been rendered sappy in less adept hands, but Portman has truly earned her rights among the greats.

Staying true to his forté, Aronofsky employs a visceral hand-held style that truly immerses us into Nina’s plight. The ballet scenes, often played out in a single-take, are truly remarkable and I often found myself swept away in dance numbers I would usually find snooze-worthy.  He has taken a story often told before, and with his wildly eclectic brush, given it a refreshing new coat of paint. This is startling filmmaking. 

Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.

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