BLACK SWAN (Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2010)
Last weekend the Carolina Theater in Durham as part of their "Retrofantasma" revival film series presented a double feature of what they dubbed "Prestigious Horror Movies": Brian De Palma's DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and Ed Bianchi's THE FAN (1981).
I predict that one day Darren Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN will be included under that banner - it's an extremely classy psycho sexual piece of prestigious horror if there ever was one.
In his follow-up to THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky focuses on the vastly different world of ballet. He recently told an interviewer: "Wrestling some consider the lowest art - if they would even call it art - and ballet some people consider the highest art.
But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves."
As a dancer in the New York City Ballet Company, a stressed out Natalie Portman is told by her director (a sharply abrasive Vincent Cassell) that for his stripped down production of "Swan Lake" that she is perfect for the role of the White Swan - not so much for the part of the Black Swan.
Since it's a dual role for one dancer, this is a bit of a dilemma for the beleaguered ballerina.
Cassell: "I knew the White Swan wouldn't be a problem. The real work will be your metamorphosis into her evil twin."
Portman sees a less skilled yet more passionate dancer, Mila Kunis, as competition, but Kunis appears aloof at the prospect and appears to be offering friendship and congratulations when Portman gets the duel lead.
Meanwhile Cassell's former star (and former flame) Winona Ryder is on her way out of the company because of her age and clashes with Portman as she is being made her successor.
Back in their narrow NY apartment Portman's mother - a well cast Barbara Hershey - also a former ballerina, pushes her daughter to work harder to perfect her craft.
Perfection is exactly what Portman craves, but little things like nightmarish hallucinations start getting in the way. Portman gets majorly freaked out by scratches and abrasions on her back which she can't explain and keeps seeing herself in the face of Kunis.
There also seems to always be taunting laughter coming from the shadows or under the surface of the tormented terrain Portman is desperately trying to navigate through.
To her mother's disapproval, Portman goes out for a night of drinks, drugs, and debauchery with Kunis. "Ah, ballerinas. No wonder you two look alike" says one of 2 guys at the club attempting to hit on them.
It's an apt comment that Aronofsky runs with.
Portman is constantly tortured by her own visage - obviously because she's becoming her own evil twin just as "Swan Lake" dictates and Kunis is the unknowing recipient of Portman's image.
Except for a number of behind the back of the protagonist's head shots as she approaches a scene, BLACK SWAN bares little resemblance to THE WRESTLER especially as it embraces startling surreality. THE WRESTLER had gritty white trash grounding; "Black Swan" wants to soar in a higher class with a deliriously scary blend of art and life.
Although it has its share of horror or suspense movie clichés including mirror scares and fake-out dream sequences, BLACK SWAN is an incredibly immersive experience.
Aronofsky thoroughly gets inside of Portman's emotional and professional obsession as the actress delivers a career best performance. Kunis puts in some of her finest work as well with a loose uninhibited demeanor that effectively balances with Portman's plague.
It may disturb some audiences, but with its vigor and justified vanity BLACK SWAN is a towering achievement.
It may not be the perfection that Portman desires, yet its ambition coupled with its sweeping visual style makes for one of the most intense and intriguing films of the year.
Expect to hear about it over and over during the upcoming awards season.