"Art isn't easy," Stephen Sondheim wrote in one of his most famous songs -- a lyric that could serve as an alternate title for Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's alternately transfixing and ludicrous melodrama about a ballerina who pushes herself to the precipice of madness, and then straight over the cliff, in pursuit of the biggest role of her career.
Natalie Portman, with her shoulders and face so tightly tensed that she looks like she is going to burst a blood vessel, plays Nina, a four-year veteran of the New York City Ballet, hoping that the artistic director Thomas Leroy (the excellent Vincent Cassel) is going to use her more in the upcoming season. She gets her chance when Leroy forces his prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) into early retirement, and casts Nina in the part of the Swan Queen in his new production of Swan Lake. He has his reservations -- Nina is a master technician yet lacks passion in her dancing -- but he is intent on pushing her to greatness. (Not to mention into his bed, also recently vacated by Beth.)
With the plum role, though, comes still more desperation and nervousness. Is free-spirited, flirty rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) trying to steal her part? Is the nasty anxiety rash that keeps spreading on her back only going to get worse from scratching? Opening night fast approaches. The nightmarish visions, florid sexual fantasies and bloody hallucinations begin multiplying. The movie -- written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin -- turns unapologetically bonkers.
Aronofsky last directed The Wrestler (2008), another story of a performer finding transcendence through very literal blood, sweat and tears. But the Aronofsky movie Black Swan more closely resembles is his 2000 breakthrough Requiem for a Dream, an unrelenting, mostly joyless vision of four drug addicts in pursuit of the next fix. Just like that film, Black Swan is a tour de force of technique: The director keeps the frame tight, and the camera pressed into Portman's body -- there's no room for her (or the audience) to breathe. The dance sequences, photographed with a nod to Michael Powell's classic The Red Shoes, maintain this unerring perspective, showing us ballet as Nina sees and experiences it. The movie is so tightly controlled, so hermetically sealed that, when Nina winces in even the slightest pain, we experience it like a stab to the gut.
Yet there's a fine line between creating a visceral experience and creating a moving one, and Aronofsky opts to stay on the chilly side of that divide: There isn't a hint of warmth or humanity to be found here. Part of the problem is that Nina isn't a complex or even human-seeming character, despite Portman's intensely physical, utterly convincing performance. This dancer's obsessive ambition obliterates everything in its path, including the audience's hopes of identifying with her. There's also not much nuance to be found in the screenplay. For all the Grand Guignol flourishes on display, including Barbara Hershey doing her best Piper Laurie-in- Carrie impression as Nina's hard-driving mother, Black Swan proves a surprisingly literal and humorless treatment of a fairly commonplace idea: How far is an artist willing to go for her art?
Pretty far, it turns out. If Black Swan is ultimately a lot less pleasurable than it should be -- even a hyper-eroticized sex scene between Portman and Kunis comes off as a kind of nerve-racking punishment for the viewer -- there's also no denying that this movie is alive in ways that few recent American films have been. At various points, we watch Nina wander through a strobe-lit neon nightclub, butcher her fingertips in the act of trimming her nails and pull apart her stuck-together toes, removing considerable chunks of skin in the process. You can't quite look at the screen without partly shielding your eyes. You also can't look away, for fear that you're going to miss what deranged thing the filmmakers will come up with next.
And in the breathless and beautiful final 15 minutes, Aronofsky and Portman bring the movie's central thesis forcefully home: If you want to achieve greatness in art, Black Swan says, you have to risk making a fool of yourself. Nina finally gets to perform Swan Lake. The camera rushes alongside her, into her dressing room and then onto the stage itself; we experience the performance as a you-are-everywhere immersion. The movie seems to be on the tipping point of pure hysteria, yet somehow both director and actress hold it together.
It's certainly something to see, though -- be warned -- the moment it's over, you'll likely sigh with relief and probably never want to see it again.