Natalie Portman gives an Oscar-worthy performance as she goes from Queen of Naboo to the Swan Queen in Darren Aronofsky's arthouse horror film, which is very much David Cronenberg meets Tchaikovsky doing A Streetcar Named Desire.
Portman plays Nina Sayers, a New York ballet dancer who is essentially auditioning for the lead role in a modern production of "Swan Lake." The problem is the ballet's director Thomas, played by French actor Vincent Cassel, doesn't think that Nina possesses the necessary qualities to play that lead role, which is actually a dual role.
Mila Kunis (That 70s Show and Forgetting Sarah Marshall) co-stars as Lily, a dancer who seemingly does exude those qualities. Lily is more of a free spirit. She's adventurous. She's open. She's bold. She's direct. She's certainly more sexual and there's an edge to her that's very compelling.
Nina is in fact the opposite. She's not a free spirit. She's not adventurous. She's not open. She's not bold. Not direct and certainly not more sexual. She may not even be sexual at all. Yes, there's a question of whether or not Nina is a virgin. She says that she's not but her actions and behavior throughout the movie indicate otherwise. That question of her virginity comes up about 30 minutes into the movie and from that point till the end, every scene is infused with either sexual tension or overt sexuality that it becomes a strong undercurrent. Restraint is the name of Nina's game, but the sexual energy from that 30-minute mark builds until it explodes in a grand, orgasmic gesture.
All along the way, there are two masters at work. The first is Portman who greatly commands this character. Nina has an innocence and vulnerability that is slowly broken down. Nina has a fear and a control issue when it comes to her body that gets eroded, and Portman takes us on the ride as she shows us it, as she shows us Nina's transformation, at least on an emotional level.
Director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream), the other master at work here, also is burdened with showing us Nina's transformation. Yet, Aronofsky shows us that Nina's change might not be just an emotional one but a physical one as well. Working off a script by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman and John J. McLaughlin, Aronofsky plays with the central idea in Tchaikovsky's ballet, which involves a young girl literally morphing into a bird.
The way he plays with it is by using sci-fi and horror film conventions. Most often when you have a character being altered into a different species, it's usually a sign that you're watching a science-fiction or horror film. Yet, Aronofsky never loses sight of the fact that this is a dramatic even melodramtic, character study as he interweaves the tropes of sci-fi and horror so effectively.
While there have been a ton of films of people mutating into werewolves, there aren't that many movies of people turning into birds. Last year, Disney gave us a girl becoming a frog, but the last movie I remember of a person turning into something with wings was David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986).
Coincidentally, I was reminded of Cronenberg's film when an Aronofsky scene in particular mirrored it. In Cronenberg's piece, Jeff Goldblum's character gets a scratch on his back, specifically on his right shoulder blade, and he finds something growing out of it. Later, he learns that it was an insect hair. In Aronofsky's piece, Portman's character who exhibits symptoms of bullimia and wrist-cutting gets a scratch on her right shoulder blade too and later discovers growing out of it a swan feather.
Through clever uses and brief glimpses of special effects, be it CGI or detailed makeup, Aronofsky is able to convey Portman's figurative and literal sprouting of wings. Through the act, which comes toward the end, Aronofsky gloriously caps a journey of transmogrification not only on an outward level but mostly on an inward one.
Easy comparisons go to Vivien Leigh and her Oscar-winning role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Blanche is tormented by a man to whom she's close, even sexually, which contributes to her mental breakdown. Portman's Nina is similarly tormented by Thomas and even Lily, driving her to an obvious swan song replete with a swan dive.
As is the case with many movies, Aronofsky blurs fantasy with reality, so that you're not really sure what's going to happen. Unlike with other horror films, where the monsters hide in the shadows to jump at you, here the demons her are all inner. Of course, they're exacerbated by people around Nina.
One of whom is Nina's mother, played by Barbara Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters and Hoosiers) who is a crazed, stage mom. She lives vicariously through her daughter but constantly babies her. Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands and Girl, Interrupted) is another of Nina's exacerbations. Ryder plays Beth, a bitter, ex-dancer who is angry about Nina's presence.
The themes of competition and ageism surface, much in the same way they surface in sports films. However, the psychological effects here are extremely more severe. Beth becomes foreshadowing personified of the mental damage that can be wrought. To get us into her head so we can feel that mental damage, Aronofsky utilizes a lot of handheld shots that really puts the lens right into Portman's face. We see her expressions and are pulled into her head. Just as she is the perfectionist consumed by her role so are we consumed by her.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.