Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is the Rorschach-blot movie of the year. As you may have heard, this unpredictable director's feminocentric bookend to 2008's The Wrestler is a ballet story that fuses the lofty anguish of The Red Shoes—the granddaddy of all Capezio epics—with the nasty creep-show twists of Roman Polanski's Repulsion. That alone guarantees a giant "WTF?" from America's heartier multiplexers, who aren't likely to appreciate the implied equivalence between Mickey Rourke doing what a man's gotta do in grubby wrestling tights and Natalie Portman going cuckoo in a tutu.
For those of us who love the damn thing, watching Aronofsky's uptight heroine lose her marbles under the strain of preparing to wow New York's tux mob in Swan Lake is definitely an experience. We just can't agree on what kind, since the two very different movies that fans come out raving about—the wrenching one that exalts Portman's Nina and the sensational black comedy that's all wised up about her hysteria's provocations—are both on the screen. So is a lot of kink, given that one bright way our gal acts out her derangement is to either have or imagine having frantic, druggy sex with smokin' Mila Kunis, who plays an uninhibited fellow dancer representing everything she's not. If you prurient bastards think that's the only scene that'll rivet you, though, you don't know Aronofsky: He's got kinks in places where most people don't even have opinions.
A driven but emotionally stunted young perfectionist whose idea of company in the bedroom hasn't graduated yet from disturbingly oversize stuffed animals, poor Nina—it rhymes with "ballerina," kids, and somewhere Edward Gorey and Al Hirschfeld are both smiling—is still little-girl-bossed at home, courtesy of her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey, giving a fair impersonation of what the Cheshire Cat looks like when unsmiling). Her ostensible rescuer is someone even better at head games: Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy, her Manhattan ballet company's artistic director and resident sadist disguised as a guru. Humiliating the troupe's aging star (Winona Ryder, maliciously well cast) into literally taking a walk into tra∞c, he cranks Nina's latent anxieties into overdrive by handing her the lead in Tchaikovsky's ornithological weeper.
Make that leads, plural, since the ballerina cast as Odette, the angelic "white swan," traditionally also dances the part of the "black" one: Odile, her evil-temptress opposite number. Time for our repressed heroine to say hello to adulthood's demons, don't you think? And for Aronofsky to say hello to David Cronenberg, since the mysterious rash that develops on Nina's shoulder blades turns out to be black swan wings desperately trying to sprout.
The cause of her, how you say, body issues isn't only that Mom's seething resentments of her daughter's success are starting to manifest themselves in unsettling ways, like celebrating Nina's Swan Lake gig with... a giant, gooey, calorie-rich cake. She's also traumatized by Thomas's ploys to get more passion out of her, from ridiculing her lack of sexual allure to brusquely sending her home with instructions to masturbate—setting up a mindblower of a cutaway shot to another audience besides teddy bears when she dutifully and then ecstatically complies.
No wonder Nina can't tell whether she's being liberated or egged on to destruction when Kunis's bad-girl Lily, all come-hither smiles and lubricious charisma, beckons her to walk on the wild side. Unless, of course, Lily is just the heroine's fantasy life acting up, a solution Aronofsky teases us to buy with every editing trick in the book. But just when we're feeling complacent about being onto his game another casually planted switcheroo catches us off guard. From then on up to the hallucinatory finale, whether we're watching a born victim's martyrdom or the triumph of a budding monster is anybody's guess.
From Aronofsky's perspective, however, there's no reason it can't be both. That's what makes Portman's faintly unnerving combination of pathos-inducing frailty and otherworldly privilege so right for the role. Even at her most affecting, Harvard's answer to Tweety Bird has never been the sort of actress you daydream about taking to a Knicks game, you know? Since Aronofsky is careful to keep Nina's ambitions outside the realm of comfortable viewer identification—she isn't pursuing perfection for acclaim's sake but for something more fanatical and twisted—Portman is convincing in a way she hasn't been since her turn as the expat stripper (now, there's a modern job description) in Closer.
Kunis, on the other hand, just saunters into the movie and walks off with its breeziest laughs. Though Lily may embody every fear and desire Nina has repressed, to us she's a welcome ambassador from Planet Normal, merrily immune to the nuttiness around her. The difference between Kunis's and Portman's acting styles suits their respective characters to a T, since the day Portman relaxes on-camera will be the day Glenn Beck quotes Jean-Paul Sartre. But Kunis, whose comic timing on That '70s Show I should have probably paid more attention to, has turned into the kind of screen natural whose instincts make other people's hard-earned craft look like homework.
Because she doesn't move as if she's alienated from her own body, Kunis is also more believable than her co-star as a professional dancer. But unlike The Red Shoes' Moira Shearer, who was a for-real ballerina turned actress and rejoiced in proving it, Portman doesn't have to show us what a virtuoso does to communicate the stresses of trying to be one. The perverse brilliance of Black Swan's twist on the florid romanticism of traditional Capezio epics isn't just Aronofsky's equation of talent with psychosis. It's in the dawning recognition that he digs ballet for the spectacle at about the level Hitchcock was interested in what Norman Bates's mother was really like.
The paradox is that few directors have ever gotten so much atmosphere and tension out of ballet as a specialized milieu. As he did in The Wrestler, Aronofsky involves us in Nina's world by fetishizing its workplace details: the pointe shoes being rubbed in ground glass to scuff them properly, the muscles in a rehearsal coach's back that summarize a whole career in one glance. He never lets us forget that Nina's idea of self-expression is to follow orders flawlessly, and that means the real drama is who she's going to take them from—including, most demandingly of all, the fanatical puppet master inside her own head.
Nina clearly horrifies Aronofsky in a way Mickey Rourke's wrestling pro didn't. That doesn't necessarily mean he identifies with her any less. Both movies have the intensity of rechanneled autobiography because they're about the physical and mental punishment involved in producing an illusion, not exactly a topic foreign to this filmmaker's career.
That's not all there is to either of them, obviously. The Wrestler transcended its setting by turning its battered hero into not only an emblem of masculinity's undying demands but the unlikely stand-in for a generation's midlife tenacity in a newly hostile world. Black Swan is just as evocative on the female and youthful side of the coin. Nonetheless, the Rourke character's doggedness undoubtedly attracted Aronofsky as a metaphor for his own resilience after the debacle of 2006's The Fountain, a project dear to his heart that nobody gave two hoots about when—much diminished from Aronofsky's grandiose original vision—it finally reached the screen. And Black Swan's heroine is someone whose disfiguring, formidable ambition to achieve perfect beauty he knows all about, too.
The hyperbole of her ascent—not descent—into madness resurrects the Aronofsky of The Fountain and the nuttier bits of Requiem for a Dream, but all the self-aware wit spiking the mix adds a new dimension of audience delight at no cost in intensity. People who don't recognize how heartlessly funny the movie often is aren't missing the point—just advertising their own temperament. He's so in control of the material's meanings that each fresh tonal shift and "Gotcha" heightens the overall effect, from horror-flick shudders to the sick-joke sitcom of the mother-daughter confrontations to the way the relationships among Portman, Kunis, and Cassel simultaneously parody and re-poeticize Swan Lake itself. In every scene, the sheer filmmaking savvy on display is a knockout.
That won't stop some carpers from grumping that Black Swan is too overwrought for its own good. The downbeat, testosterone-soaked naturalism of The Wrestler made it Aronofsky's most atypical film, but that's also why it's the one the audience had the easiest time embracing. Well, the male one, anyhow—but we're not the experts this time out, gang. Whatever you make of Nina-rhymes-with-ballerina's Pyrrhic victory over her phantom jailers and secret selves, don't be surprised if your date comes out raving that Black Swan is her favorite documentary of all time.