Film Review

Cuckoo for Tutus: Black Swan Is Equal Parts Disturbing and Breathtaking

Would you expect anything less from director Darren Aronofsky?

By Matthew Halverson December 9, 2010

Natalie Portman stars in dance thriller Black Swan.

Is she crazy, or is she really becoming a swan? That’s the question that Darren Aronofsky would love for you to believe drives Black Swan, his cuckoo-for-tutus tale of one ballerina’s relentless pursuit of perfection. But the more compelling one is whether he’s actually driving himself crazy in his attempt to get you to ask yourself that very question.

Aronofsky’s never been one for subtlety (see: the talking refrigerator that tormented Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream), but he’s going all in with Swan. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a technically gifted, emotionally stunted dancer who starts her day with half a grapefruit and a vigorous toe cracking. (Didn’t know that a dancer’s life is hard? Don’t worry. The camera lingers on images of both to make sure you do.) She’s also hell bent on landing the lead in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, a part that would require her to be something she is (graceful) and something she isn’t (sensual). And she wants it so bad, she practices her pirouettes until her toes split and bleed. If you listen closely, you can almost hear Aronofsky doing his own pirouettes behind the camera in a desperate attempt to drive home the dance-as-masochistic-quest-for-validation shtick.

But it works. After Nina lands the role, succumbs to her obsession, and literally gets her wings, Swan gleefully veers into a Cronenberg-esque metaphor on Method acting, and whether or not the whole thing is a figment of her imagination is beside the point. Love him or hate him, Aronofsky’s at his best when he’s operatic, and could there be a better subject through which to channel his particular brand of melodrama than the theatrics of ballet? He’s painting in starkly—and, let’s face it, chauvinistically—broad strokes of white and black as Nina wrestles with her Madonna façade and inner whore, but Portman’s portrayal of the transformation from the former to the latter is both delicate and severe. It’s disturbing. It’s bugnuts insane. And it’s a breathtaking portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Black Swan is in theaters December 9.

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