No dancing around the subject—so far, the best movie of the year is Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, the creepiest mind-fuck of a thriller since just about ever. The progeny of Roman Polanski's Repulsion and Brian De Palma's Carrie, this nonetheless unique vision of a dancer's descent into madness and/or ascent into perfection is an unforgettable (and why would you try?) achievement in filmmaking.
Incandescent, Audrey Hepburn-channeling Natalie Portman gives the female performance of 2010 as Nina Sayers, a young ballerina obsessed with earning the role of the Swan Queen in her company's season-opening production of Swan Lake. She's devoted her life to dance, given her body over to it—as illustrated in exacting, uncomfortable detail by Aronofsky's lens—and even though the company's previous prima ballerina (Winona Ryder in a deliciously conceived bit part) isn't left with much to show for her own devotion, Nina seems willing to give even more, perhaps even her sanity.
The problem is that Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the company's artistic director, sees Nina as embodying the role's virginal, beatific White Swan part but is unconvinced she'll be able to pull off the conniving, sexual Black Swan part as well. Despite the conflicted support of her faded-ballerina mother/frenemy (Barbara Hershey, passive-aggressively malevolent) and Nina's own self-doubt, she's got the part—but can she keep it with sensual newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) waiting in the wings?
The ice-cold, unsympathetic camera follows Nina's every gesture as relentlessly as a stalker; at times, the camera feels like it's peeping on our heroine, forcing us to do the same. But are we invading her troubled mind or is her troubled mind seeping out for all the world to see? It isn't easy to tell, nor does Aronofsky hold back on the horror-genre vibe, keeping viewers fearing for Nina's grip on reality and questioning the film's reflection of it at every moment. Our only guide to figuring out what's real and what's hallucinatory is Nina's face, and even she can't be sure. But watching Portman act Nina's innocence, her uncertain desire, her drive to be the best, is thrilling.
Kunis is a knock-out as Lily, at various turns cool—Nina covets her natural and effortless approach to dance—and cunning, nurturing and manipulative. Lily's seduction of Nina is as understandable as Eve believing that snake, and their much-publicized romantic episode is raw and erotic yet overwhelmingly scary considering Nina's fragile state of mind.
Cassel is razor-sharp as the sleazy, heartless director, a man who casually takes advantage of the young women who willingly place themselves under his thumb and who drives Nina nearly as hard as her bitter mother.
The only thing "wrong" with Black Swan is something I see as a plus—it's so saturated with dread and so emo it borders on genuine camp in spots. So I could see some people—like the vocal older woman behind me—getting to a certain point with it and declaring, "This is too much!" But too much is exactly what Black Swan is chronicling.
Can't recommend it highly enough. Oscar nominations all around, please. Black Swan is in theaters now.