'Black Swan' and 'Tiny Furniture': Of mothers and daughters, ambition and angst

Black Swan illustration by Sean McCabe
Black Swan illustration by Sean McCabe
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 10:30 PM

Since making "Pi," his audaciously low-tech black-and-white debut feature, in 1998, director Darren Aronofsky has proven one of the most protean forces in Hollywood, delivering a steady stream of visionary experiments ("Requiem for a Dream," "The Fountain") and intimate dramas ("The Wrestler"). Aronofsky brings both those sensibilities to bear on "Black Swan," a near-masterpiece of a film set in the hothouse world of New York ballet.

With this hallucinatory trip down a rabbit hole that is equally seductive and repellent, he makes a bid for a canon that includes no less than Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger ("The Red Shoes") and Herbert Ross ("The Turning Point") in creating a ballet film that captures both the gossamer pink softness of classical dance and the scarier psychological impulses lying just beneath the serene surface.

(GOING OUT GUIDE: 'Black Swan,' 'Tiny Furniture' showtimes)

Like its predecessors, "Black Swan" begins as a backstage drama but winds up being a meditation on female ambition, which in this case gets punished with singularly perverse excess. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has obsessively perfected her flawless technique at an unnamed New York company for years when she's finally considered for the lead in an upcoming production of "Swan Lake." As her manipulative artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), observes, Nina possesses all the innocence and self-control of the Swan Queen, but his "stripped-down, visceral" version of the ballet demands that she also portray the Black Queen. She's a sinuous, primal persona he doesn't think Nina can pull off.

It's difficult to disagree: With her breathy whisper of a voice, cosseted home life with overprotective mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) and wide-eyed sexual naivete, Nina remains a child-woman swaddled in feathery scarves and downy pink shrugs. What's more, a tattooed ingenue named Lily (Mila Kunis, in a smashing breakout performance) has just joined the company, presenting a loose-limbed, smoky-eyed threat to Nina's tightly wound rectitude.

Aronofsky, working from a script by Mark Heyman, takes all of the classic tropes of ballet films - the lushness and lyricism, the determination and competition - and ruthlessly twists their classical lines, contorting them with gothic horror that only grows more brutal as Nina's interior life becomes more unhinged.

As he did with "The Wrestler," Aronofsky often films Portman from behind with a handheld camera, an elaboration on the entire film's immersive point of view. (That oblique style is particularly well suited here, where Portman's carriage and posture express so much, not to mention an impressively sculpted trapezius.) With image and sound - especially those familiar booming strains of Tchaikovsky - "Black Swan" wraps filmgoers in a world where some of the toughest athletes on the planet push and pummel themselves into making the most strenuous feats seem effortless.

It's also a world of nearly incurable narcissism, a theme Aronofsky and production designer Therese DePrez elaborate in the countless mirrors that, with the black-and-white color scheme, make up the film's chief visual motifs. Nina may be entranced by her own reflection but incapable of loving herself; early in "Black Swan," Leroy posits that she'll never be a truly great dancer until she frees herself sexually. Aronofsky, like Nina herself, labors too obviously to drive that point home, and in a few scenes allows literalism to get in the way of what could have been left tantalizingly ambiguous.

These few misfires do little to break the spell cast by "Black Swan," which despite its flaws delivers the most sensitive and observant portrayals of female ambivalence in recent memory. Of all the rapturous, haunting and outright frightening scenes in "Black Swan," by far the most memorable is when Nina calls her mother from a bathroom stall to share a piece of important news. Before that episode and after, Portman delivers an uncompromising performance, whether she's called on to be fragile or recklessly bold. But that moment on the phone bespeaks complete emotional transparency, conveying vulnerability, terror and surpassing joy all at once.

The episode also makes utterly palpable Nina's tortured relationship to her own incipient power. And that troubled dynamic plays out most mythically through her encounters with three women: Lily; an embittered, aging ballerina named Beth (Winona Ryder); and especially Erica, whose engulfing love and resentment of her daughter form "Black Swan's" most potent psychological accelerant.

Erica, a former dancer who gave up her career to have Nina, could be the direct descendant of Shirley MacLaine's Deedee in "The Turning Point." As personified by Hershey in a deliciously menacing performance, Erica takes mixed feelings to a new level of menace and enmeshment. In a movie where boundaries have a way of slipping and sliding into one another, the cozy, cramped apartment where Erica and Nina hash out their Oedipal battles begins to resemble less a haven than a toxic cocoon.

Like just about everything in "Black Swan," Aronofsky executes this familiar but distorted domestic tableau with precision, skill and feeling that would please even Nina's most severe inner critic. Like his heroine, Aronofsky teeters on the brink of greatness; unlike her, he doesn't hesitate to swing for the rafters to achieve it.

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