Natalie Portman became a movie star by playing luminous teenagers, and it’s been a problem for her ever since. Not because she’s allowed herself to be typecast, exactly; most of the roles she’s chosen in her twenties have been obviously calculated to prove that she’s a grown-up actress, and not just the lovely, fragile, watchful girl-child who dazzled in such films as The Professional and Heat. But despite having persuaded directors to cast her as a stripper, an army wife, a terrorist, and even a lustful, scheming Anne Boleyn, Portman remains a prisoner of her girlhood. At 29, she’s as luminous as ever, but she hasn’t demonstrated anything more than the most basic, marks-hitting competence in her attempts to play fully formed adults.
Her starring role in Darren Aronofsky’s ballet psychodrama, Black Swan, doesn’t break that pattern, because the character she’s playing, an up-and-coming ballerina named Nina Sayers, pretty obviously isn’t an adult. Nina is coddled, infantilized, neurotic, and quasi-virginal; she lives with her controlling, ex-ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey) and sleeps in a hot-pink bedroom thronged with stuffed animals. Portman took a substantial risk by accepting this kind of part, since it’s an obvious step back from the kind of “I am woman, hear me roar” role that she’s been looking for. But the decision paid off handsomely: Black Swan is a reminder that when Portman’s in her comfort zone — and, in this case, embodying a character whose dilemmas bear some resemblance to her own — she can be absolutely transfixing.
When the movie begins, Nina is up for the lead role in a production of Swan Lake, which is being overseen and reinterpreted by the domineering, charismatic choreographer Thomas LeRoy (Vincent Cassel). His star and “princess,” up till now, has been Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder, a Portman-esque actress who never escaped her ingenue beginnings), but she’s aged out of the part — “practically in menopause,” the catty junior ballerinas murmur — and Nina is suddenly elevated in her place. Not without mixed feelings on LeRoy’s part, though. His new star is technically proficient, but he needs her to play both the virginal, virtuous White Swan and her dark, seductive doppelganger, and he isn’t sure that Nina has enough of the Black Swan in her to pull it off.
She isn’t sure, either — and it doesn’t help when the perfect Black Swan floats in from San Francisco, in the form of Lily (Mila Kunis), a sensual and free-spirited addition to the troupe who resembles a through-a-glass-darkly version of Nina. LeRoy is obviously drawn to her, and Nina is as well: Her fear of losing the lead role to Lily commingles with a sense that her own dark side is somehow embodied in her rival, and a sapphic obsession blossoms from the combination.
Madness blossoms as well. Nina begins to see doppelgangers everywhere: Her reflection blurs into Lily, into Beth, into her mother. The ballet invades her dreams, and then her flesh: Her toes web together, blood pools at her fingertips, wings stir beneath her shoulder blades. Maybe she’s being pushed into the abyss — by Lily’s ambitions and manipulations, by LeRoy’s tyrannical tutelage, by her mother’s passive-aggressive smothering. Maybe she’s leaping into it, hoping the darkness will infuse her, and then bear her upward to new artistic heights. Either way, both her madness and the movie build to quite the frenzied, hallucinatory conclusion.
All in all, Black Swan is a riveting, disturbing little story, though I’m not quite sure whether it adds up to more than just a highbrow exploitation picture. In a way, Aronofsky’s movie is a throwback to the melodramas of an earlier time: It’s All About Eve by way of Vertigo, Psycho, and Mommie Dearest, with some of the corrosive energy of 1970s horror worked in as well. But there’s also an obvious thread of postmodern meta-ness running through the story: the casting of Portman and Ryder in roles that mirror their real-life career trajectories, the parallels between LeRoy’s attempt to coax a transformative performance out of Nina and Aronofsky’s obvious determination to do the same with his real-life star — and then the way the movie nods, in queasiness-inducing ways, to some of the creepily Lolita-ish enthusiasms of Portman’s online fan base. (That pinker-than-pink bedroom gets used for more than just pillow fights.) Sometimes, all of these moving parts seem to add up to a psychologically resonant and terrifying whole. But sometimes it feels like Aronofsky was just looking for an excuse to film Kunis and Portman French-kissing.
Whether the movie is art or exploitation, though, Portman’s performance is the best work she’s done in years. I don’t know what it betokens for her future. (Looking ahead, I see that she’s scheduled to co-star in a romantic comedy with Ashton Kutcher, which suggests an actress whose career is still a bit adrift.) But it’s proof, at least, that when the stars align and the melodrama surges, she can still knock it out of the park.