No matter what kind of movie he makes, Darren Aronofsky is never less than fully committed, and it’s his complete dedication that elevates Black Swan from melodramatic hokum to the level of high art. The psychosexual drama about a driven ballet dancer (Natalie Portman) cracking under the pressure of her first starring role could have easily been silly and overwrought, but Aronofsky manages to turn those traits to his advantage, creating a spectacle so intense and over the top that the top isn’t even visible anymore.
He starts by casting Portman as Nina Sayers, a perennial also-ran in her New York City dance company, hoping to win the main role in a new production of Swan Lake. Portman’s quiet determination shows how tightly wound and insecure Nina is, her internalized ambition coming through in worried glances and tense body language. Cast in the dual role of the White and Black Swans in Swan Lake, Nina is bullied by both her misogynistic director (Vincent Cassel) and her overbearing ex-dancer mother (Barbara Hershey); the director wants Nina to let her passions loose and embrace the darkness of the Black Swan, while her mother wants Nina to be a technically perfect dancer with no personal flaws.
In the middle comes free-spirited fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), who seems to effortlessly embody all the qualities just out of Nina’s grasp. As Nina starts seeing herself physically metamorphose and envisioning Lily as her evil doppelganger, Aronofsky ratchets up the tension to operatic heights, mimicking the heightened aesthetic of ballet itself. Is Nina really undergoing some sort of transformation, or is she just crazy? The answer is less important than the way we get there, the visual splendor of Nina’s breakdown, the danger of her relationships with Lily and her director, the glimpses of a veteran ballerina (Winona Ryder) who’s paid the price for her ambition and been left a broken shell of herself. As Nina retreats further into her own delusions (or are they?), Aronofsky leaps right in with her, committing fully to the insanity of the story. We can’t help but be swept along.