Darren Aronofsky is a filmmaker with the chops to be a great director and the impulse to be a sensationalistic one.
In many ways, his films are of a piece: stories about obsessions and mysteries -- and obsessions with mysteries. From his debut Pi to his newest, Black Swan (which bears a surprising resemblance to that first film), with stops at Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler (and even The Fountain), Aronofsky makes films that pull you in and, every once in a while, deliver a jolt just for the fun of it. It's as though he's testing the audience, saying, "Didn't see that one coming, did you? Now - you still with me?"
So it is with Black Swan, an energetic and sometimes unnerving story of obsession and the pressure that goes with it. This tale of a ballerina, played by Natalie Portman, isn't The Turning Point or Mao's Last Dancer or any of those other nicey-artsy stories of the drive to achieve the pinnacle of one's art.
Rather, Black Swan is like a horror-movie version of The Red Shoes --or perhaps it's The Red Shoes meets Saw -- in which the quest for perfection drives the dancer slowly mad.
Portman plays Nina, a member of the corps of what appears to be the New York City Ballet. She has greater ambition than that -- and she's pushed by her manipulative and domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), whose own career was curtailed when she became a parent.
Nina catches the eye of the artistic director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel, perfectly egocentric and imperious), who is looking to replace his old star (Winona Ryder) with a discovery. For his new production of Swan Lake, he wants to combine the Swan Queen and the Black Swan so they're danced by the same ballerina, to make a statement about the duality of good and evil in the characters.
He believes Nina, with her obvious perfectionism, is right for the Swan Queen. She's delicate and artful, conveying the longing and loss of the role. Though he believes she's too controlled to play the Black Swan, he casts her anyway, then tries to browbeat her into becoming the dancer he envisions.