WARNING: This article contains spoilers regarding the ending of Black Swan.
The hand-held camera of a non-dancegoer zeroes in on the clichés of ballet in Black Swan: the sweaty glamour, the ambition and the madness, the bodies wound tight with denial and desire. Darren Aronofsky's movie isn't, however, about ballet or Swan Lake, except in that its plot takes off from Swan Lake's famous dual ballerina role. Innocent young Nina embarks on a long nervous breakdown when she's tapped to play both Odette, the paragon of purity, and Odile, the ruthless Black Swan. Surrounded by treacherous mirrors, the good/virginal/dutiful dancer is goaded by her choreographer/director (Vincent Cassel) with harsh coaching and passionate kisses, so she'll become "free" enough to play the evil/sexy/predatory Odile.
Sex, drugs, and abuse are his prescription, or so she thinks. The film pulls us into her confusion and eventual dissociation with claustrophobic settings and symbolic images: Nina gives up her white wardrobe for gray, then black, as her character degrades. Her hair comes loose. She stuffs her toys down the apartment incinerator chute. Her black-clad mother (Barbara Hershey), a possessive former dancer, projects her own failed ambitions onto Nina. The only friendly fellow dancer (Mila Kunis) introduces her to the above excesses and secretly covets Nina's role. She wears black too.
Natalie Portman looks too old to play a would-be star with the psychic age of a 15-year-old, and Aronofsky compensates for the fact that she isn't a dancer by waltzing around her, photographing only her plausible upper body. Anything technical is the work of American Ballet Theatre soloist Sarah Lane, filmed in long shot or in close-ups of her feet. Benjamin Millepied's choreography is incidental to the lurid fantasies of Portman's journey.
The movie is beautifully constructed, insidiously alluring. The acting is as relentlessly melodramatic as the ballet's scenario. Nina triumphs in the premiere, but we never see how she does it — we get only split-second glimpses of her hallucinations and long, elegiac gazes at her suffering face. The flaw in the movie's master metaphor is that instead of acquiring Odile's power, or even her cruelty, Nina succumbs to the character's evil. After all her hard work, she doesn't become a better dancer or an integrated, grown-up person. As the audience is cheering, she dies, convinced she's reached perfection.