"Swan" is an instant guilty pleasure, a gorgeously shot, visually complex film whose badness is what's so good about it. You might howl at the sheer audacity of mixing mental illness with the body-fatiguing, mind-numbing rigors of ballet, but its lurid imagery and a hellcat competition between two rival dancers is pretty irresistible. Certain to divide audiences, "Swan" won't lack for controversy, but will any of this build an audience? Don't bet against it.
"Swan" bears a resemblance to Aronofsky's most recent film, "The Wrestler." Its battered, lonely protagonist was a pro wrestler who drags his weary body into the ring night after night because that's what he is—a wrestler. Same with Natalie Portman's Nina, a sinewy, thin slip of a ballerina whose body actually cracks loudly while getting out of bed. But she heads into the dance studio every day to pirouette on bloody toes and strain every muscle in her body. Because that's what she does.
Only Aronofsky suggests, right from an opening dream sequence, that Nina might be cracking up. He keeps the camera close to his heroine, not just so objects and people can suddenly loom next to her as in all horror flicks, but to suggest a certain amount of paranoia and claustrophobia.
Nina lives with an emotionally smothering mother, played by Barbara Hershey in as unflattering makeup, hairstyle and lighting as possible. Mom hovers obsessively over her daughter, watching everything from her diet to nervous habits, like scratching her skin until it bleeds. However, as with any of the lurid visions in this movie—bloody nails, breaking bones, puncture wounds, nasty sutures—you're never quite sure how real they are. They could be figments of Nina's fervid imagination.
A New York ballet company's artistic director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel, the only unambiguous character in the film), selects Nina for the double role of the White Swan and Black Swan in his provocative new take on that old war horse "Swan Lake." He knows Nina can nail the White Swan, but he's not so sure she can embody the dark side of the Swan Queen. So he imports from the West Coast another dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), whose cunning, deviousness and rampant Id make her an ideal Black Swan. Lily becomes Nina's alternate for the Swan Queen—and her rival.
Nina got the role in the first place when Thomas cavalierly tossed aside the company's previous prima ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder). Beth slinks around the film's periphery, hissing obscenities and accusations until she winds up in a hospital after walking in front of a car. Like the mother character, Beth exists to up the ante of paranoia and tension as mental chaos relentlessly assails Nina.
Nina's drive for perfection runs roughshod over her health and friendships. Nothing else matters. Thomas eggs her on, using sexual abuse and intimidation to get her to "lose yourself" in darkness. If he only knew how truly lost Nina is in that darkness. What she really is losing is her sense of reality.
All this psycho drama builds to a fever pitch braced by the woozy lyricism of Tchaikovsky's music, sumptuous choreography by New York City Ballet star Benjamin Millepied and Matthew Libatique's darting, weaving camera. By "Swan Lake's" opening night, the film surrenders to the surreal when Nina's body grows feathers and horrific backstage mayhem vanishes on cue.
Aronofsky, working with an original script by Andres Heinz that later was rewritten by Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin, never succeeds in wedding genre elements to the world of ballet. The film takes its cues from "Swan Lake" itself as demons, doubles and death dance in Nina's head. She can only approach perfection by becoming the dual character she plays—the innocent and the evil.
Portman, who has danced but is no ballerina, does a more than credible job in the big dance numbers and the tough rehearsals that are so essential to the film. In her acting, too, you sense she has bravely ventured out of her comfort zone to play a character slowly losing sight of herself. It's a bravura performance.
Kunis makes a perfect alternate to Portman, equally as lithe and dark but a smirk of self-assurance in place of Portman's wide-eyed fearfulness. Indeed, White Swan/Black Swan dynamics almost work, but the horror-movie nonsense drags everything down the rabbit hole of preposterousness.
– The Hollywood Reporter
Cast: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenwriters: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin
Story by: Andres Heinz
Rated R, 108 minutes