Princess Tutu this is not. This is much more Paranoia Agent or Perfect Blue. A dark, melodramatic take on the fractured psyche of an outwardly perfect person and the pressure that makes them crack. Darren Aronofsky, the director, has crafted a psychological-horror story about ballet that is worth watching.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is an extremely dedicated ballerina with the New York City Ballet Company. She is desperate for the lead role of Swan Queen in Swan Lake but despite giving her the part, demanding Principal Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) thinks she is too innocent to portray the Black Swan and must work harder. Pressure is mounting with a company of fellow dancers prone to jealousy, and an obsessed mother (Barbara Hershey). Things are made tougher when Lily (Mila Kunis) from San Francisco arrives and proves to be effortlessly sexual, vivacious and a good dancer, easily able to be the Black Swan. Nina finds her personality fracturing and a doppelganger emerging.
Aronofsky uses a documentary style to give a glimpse of the back-stage lives of the dancers with extreme-close ups and shots from a handheld camera. Through this, the film layers atmosphere and details, disturbing character traits and psychological seepage within that style. It is clear that Nina has danced herself into a ballet psychosis.
The documentary style reveals the pressure of getting every performance right which makes the pressure on Nina feel very intense as the whole company relies on her. Portman plays the role well and has a great shot at the Oscar for Best Actress.
The sense that something darker underlies Nina’s personality grows and Portman’s portrayal of innocence giving way to a more pointed desperation will make the hairs on the back of your neck rise whilst delivering the occasional punch to the gut, especially during the body horror which grows and spikes at various gruesome moments that are physically and emotionally unnerving until the final transformation which is quite magnificent.
The film sets up Nina’s downfall convincingly. She is a sweet girl pressurised and brutalised by a culture of perfection in performance and body. Portman looks fragile, she constantly looks like she will cry and the perseverance she exhibits is scary. She is obsessed with being perfect so it’s no surprise when the evil twin arrives. In fact the psychology is standard issue transference and paranoia that creates a noxious mixture.
Aronofsky’s choice of actresses for the roles is canny as they look similar, thus helping in creating doubles, alter-egos, which are useful when Nina’s inner-desires and fears swamp her and the audience.
Nina’s relationship with intensely bitter former Prima Ballerina named Beth (scary Winona Ryder) dramatises the tension of Nina’s new role and the problems she faces. On top of that, they all give brilliant performances that play on the fears of Nina.
Vincent Cassel is the stand-out, who is one of the world’s great actors, plays object of lust and stereotypical Gallic sensualist super-charged with a lot of charisma that brings the role to life.
The actors’ many on-set ordeals were well reported, tough physical training and Aronosfsky playing mind-games on set have paid off. The actresses move like dancers and the film displays their thin and abused bodies and feet from the hours of physical training. The ballet sequences are excellent and the sense of paranoia that must surely be in a ballet troupe felt real.
The film is melodramatic and outrageous at points (don’t take your parents) but it is genuinely exciting to watch as this fragile, tiny girl loses her grip on reality. It gives way to a manic fifteen minutes at the end where ballet and lunacy combine to create a sequence of satisfying artistic transcendence for both Nina and the film.