Darren Aronofsky’s upscale horror movie began with the director’s fascination with Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella, “The Double.” The long-in-the-thinking result, “Black Swan” begins at anorexic screeching fear and self-loathing and then lurches from there. Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a thirty-ish dancer dying to play the split-character role in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” She has to impress her New York dance company’s director, Frenchman Vincent Cassel (who pirouettes in flat-front trousers and likes a bit of blood). But she almost must evade the “Carrie”-like ministrations of her mother, a hard-bitten Barbara Hershey, all the while worrying she’ll go downhill like the dancer who preceded her (a deliciously snappish Winona Ryder) or be surpassed by an up-and-comer (petite, vital Mila Kunis). Simultaneously pretentious and lurid, ripe with mirrors, doubles, mirrorings, dopplegangers, “Black Swan”‘s temper is pitched at the level of a Brian De Palma adaptation of Polanski’s “Repulsion” that’s convinced it’s being directed by Stanley Kubrick. Or maybe it’s just “Exorcist IV: En Pointe.” The cracking of fresh-flexed reddened toes set up the rigors to come: some may be more alarmed by close-ups of busted toenails than the puffy, punched face of Mickey Rourke. She’s a snipper-cutter-scratcher and the black-white-and-mirrors visual scheme only blooms at wrecked flesh. In the rehearsal studio, above wall-to-wall mirrors, head-and-shoulder silhouettes ring the room, cutout black-paper chiaroscuro, like the work of artist Kara Walker. The rigid pattern extends to smallest details, such as a composition of a tense confrontation set off by several perfectly crumpled sheets of white paper balled up in a black mesh trash can under a desk. “Perfection is not just about control it’s also about letting go showing the audience transcendence,” Nina is told. (Cue directorial smirk.) Air rushes into the room with images like a gash on a calf, a vaginal gawp of a wound. Think: Dentata the Menace. As sexual tension rises, a near-red flower beside a mirror blooms like labia. Kubrick homages arise in a dance scene on E, like a sped-up coming-to-awareness from “2001,” followed by emphasis on a foyer mirror in Nina’s apartment that matches the octagonal-ish interior of the ship. Still, it’s all of a piece, from bony Portman to Sayers’ descent, and the ending is weirdly perfect and satisfying. 103m. (Ray Pride)
“Black Swan” opens Friday at Landmark Century.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.