If visions of sugarplums dance in your head, stay the hell away from Black Swan, a hotblooded, head-spinning erotic thriller in which director Darren Aronofsky does to ballet what Kanye West does to rap: turns it into his own beautiful dark twisted fantasy. Just as he did with the fight game in The Wrestler, Aronofsky treats ballet as one of the bleeding arts. And so does his breathtaking star, Natalie Portman, who delivers an all-stops-out performance that will soon be the stuff of legend. Portman plays Nina, a dancer who knows she can’t make it in the competitive world of New York City ballet unless she damn near kills herself trying. What’s not broken on her body is black and blue. Her mother, Erica (an indelible Barbara Hershey), once a ballerina herself, cracks the whip at home. The goal is the lead role in Swan Lake, available after the forced eviction of aging prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder, neurotically on point). Thomas (a mesmerizing Vincent Cassel), the company’s director, is enthralled by Nina’s innocence as Odette, the White Swan, but feels she lacks the seductive heat required as Odette’s alter ego, the Black Swan. “Go home and touch yourself,” he advises his repressed protégée, as his eye wanders to rival dancer Lily, played with sly wit and smoldering fire by Mila Kunis.
In lesser hands, the plot could be campy soapsuds. OK, sometimes it is. But Aronofsky, taking off from a script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin, is a fearless visionary. The Brooklyn-born director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain pushes his limits — and ours. Nina’s obsessions have her tearing at her flesh, raging at her mother and ripping into frenzied girl-on-girl action with Lily. Then the movie tips over into horror, blurring the line between reality and hallucination. Black Swan is a high-wire act for Aronofsky and Portman as they lure us into Nina’s tormented mind. The swirling hand-held camerawork of Matthew Libatique, coupled with a Clint Mansell score that channels Tchaikovsky’s ecstatic dread, adds to the whirlwind. At the center of it all is Portman. The actress, 29, trained in ballet as a child and drilled hard for nearly a year to master the choreography and do most of her own dancing. Portman’s portrait of an artist under siege is unmissable and unforgettable. So is the movie. You won’t know what hit you.