A ballerina preparing to step into a lead role must overcome psychic traumas fueled by fear, jealousy and sexual repression, in this melodramatic tale of an artist's quest for perfection. The Fox Searchlight release was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won one.
By CBSNews.com producer David Morgan
Like director Darren Aronofsky's previous film, "The Wrestler," the narrative of "Black Swan" celebrates a tremendous physicality, showing the extreme corporeal nature of a dancer's life and work - the stretching and conditioning; the regimen of preparing toe shoes; and the brutal training, rehearsals and performance required to make art appear effortless.
Nina (Natalie Portman), a member of a ballet company in New York City, has been working her whole life to reach the top of her field, and with the retirement of the company's star dancer, her chance may have arrived.
The company's director and choreographer, Thomas Leroy, announces a new production of "Swan Lake," which will feature one dancer performing the parts of both the White Swan and the Black Swan - the ying and yang of good and evil, delicate refinement and corrupted desire, purity and lust. Given the importance of the transformation of one character into another, his requirements for who should fill the role are extremely demanding.
Nina has the dancing chops - the technique and precision that would make the White Swan soar. But Brennan is not convinced she has the depth or experience he believes are crucial to performing the Black Swan.
Nina's self-doubt is also increased following the arrival at the company of a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who is the mirror opposite of Nina - unprepossessing, self-mocking, tattooed.
The earthiness of Lily's presence and her dancing makes Nina feel both threatened and strangely attracted to her.
When Leroy (Vincent Cassel) suggests Lily might be able to dance the part of the Black Swan, Nina tries to convince him that she is capable of that same earthiness - by wearing lipstick (!). He sees through her ploy and criticizes her unwillingness to take risks. "I never see you lose yourself," he says.
We can see why he doubts her: Nina lives a sheltered life, shuttling to and from the Upper West Side apartment she shares with her overbearing mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey). A former dancer who gave up her career when she became pregnant with Nina, Erica is by turns nurturing, over-protective and infantilizing. We should be shocked to learn that Nina - whose room is decorated like a young teenager - is almost 30, but with Erica around, it is less surprising.
Nina convinces Leroy that she may be capable of taking risks, and wins the part - but not without raising eyebrows about what she may have done to get it.
As Nina undergoes the grueling preparations for her role, she is constantly thwarted by her own self-doubt, which materializes as distorted points of view. She begins to see herself - doubles - on the street.
She (and we) also see distorted versions of reality reflected in mirrors. As rehearsals progress, she even see contortions and marks on her skin, and hellish images flashing before her eyes.
When she tries to break through her inhibitions and socialize, even willingly taking drugs offered by Lily, she is met with consternation and suspicion from her mother. Losing herself, Nina experiences not freedom but more confinement and a weakened grasp on reality.
Nina also becomes more suspicious of Lily, fearing that she is being undercut or sabotaged by an ambitious understudy who could take her place.
Nina's existence and her self-expression is solely through dance (unlike others who comment, cuttingly, that they "got a life"), but when she tries to break out of her shell she opens herself up to others' abuse, cruelty and ambition. No wonder she prefers the isolation of her worldview - just her, a stage and a spotlight.
The psychic cost upon the artist who seeks perfection is the driving force of the film. And because so much of "Black Swan" is told through Nina's distorted point of view, we are never exactly sure of what is real and what is her heightened conjoining of fear, desire, danger and bliss.
Best Actress Oscar nominee Natalie Portman (Nina) has swept most of this season's top acting honors for her dynamic performance in "Black Swan," including the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild Award. She was previously nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of a stripper in "Closer." Portman made her film debut at age 13 opposite Jean Reno in the Luc Besson thriller "The Professional." She followed with notable performances in "Heat," "Beautiful Girls," "Everyone Says I Love You," "Mars Attacks!" "Anywhere But Here," "Cold Mountain," "Garden State," "V for Vendetta," "Paris, Je T'Aime," "The Darjeeling Limited," "The Other Woman," "The Other Boleyn Girl," and "No Strings Attached." But she is perhaps best known for her turn as Padme - mother of Luke and Leia - in the "Star Wars" prequels, and she'll soon be seen in another epic fantasy: "Thor."
Golden Globe nominee Mila Kunis (Lily) recently appeared in "Date Night," "The Book of Eli," "Max Payne" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Her TV credits include starring roles in "That '70s Show" and, as the voice of Meg Griffin, "Family Guy." Next up: "Friends With Benefits."
Portman and Kunis both underwent extensive ballet training prior to filming. Kunis tore two ligaments and dislocated her shoulder, and Portman, who danced nearly all of her scenes, suffered a rib injury while training. "I had no idea how grueling it would be," Portman said.
Vincent Cassel (Leroy) starred as gangster Jacques Mesrine in Jean-Francois Richet's two-part feature "Mesrine" (2008). His other films include "Jefferson in Paris," "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," "Brotherhood of the Wolf," "Elizabeth." "Ocean's Twelve" & "... Thirteen," "Eastern Promises" and "Our Day Will Come."
Barbara Hershey (Erica) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for "The Portrait of a Lady" (1996), but she is best remembered for earthy performances in films by such directors as Martin Scorsese ("Boxcar Bertha," "The Last Temptation of Christ"), Woody Allen ("Hannah and Her Sisters"), Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff"), and Barry Levinson ("The Natural," "Tin Men"). She also won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival two years in a row, for "Shy People" (1987) and "A World Apart" (1988). Other notable credits include "The Baby Maker," "The Liberation of L.B. Jones," "The Stunt Man," "Hoosiers," "Paris Trout," "Beaches," "Falling Down," "The Public Eye," and "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries." She next appears in the horror film "Insidious."
Winona Ryder (Beth Macintyre) received Academy Award nominations for "The Age of Innocence" (Best Supporting Actress) and "Little Women" (Best Actress). Her other credits include "BeetleJuice," "Heathers," "Great Balls of Fire!" "Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael," "Edward Scissorhands," "Mermaids," "Night on Earth," "Bram Stoker's Dracula" "Reality Bites," "The House of the Spirits," "How to Make an American Quilt," "The Crucible," "Alien: Resurrection," "Celebrity," "Autumn in New York," "Girl, Interrupted," "A Scanner Darkly," and the Al Pacino documentary "Looking for Richard." In 2009 she appeared as Spock's mother in the stellar "Star Trek" reboot, and recently she was featured in the comedy "The Dilemma."
After several short films, Best Director nominee Darren Aronofsky made his feature debut with the indie "Pi" (1998), which won the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival. He had directed three lead actors to Oscar nominations: Ellen Burstyn ("Requiem for a Dream"), Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler") and now Portman. He also directed the 2006 fantasy "The Fountain."
Matthew Libatique's cinematography (which incorporates extensive handheld camerawork) presents both the beauty and hard work of a dancer's life, and accommodates Aronofsky's use of horror movie tropes (shock cuts, sudden appearances of fiendish or threatening characters, jarring acts of violence, weird distortions and points of view) to underscore Nina's fragile state of mind. Separate plates of Nina were combined so that reflections in mirrors are dramatically shifted to reveal distortions in her perspective - as here when she sees "herself" acting independently of her own reflection.
Digital alteration of textures in stage lighting was also employed.
If you wondered how the crew was able to shoot in a mirror-lined rehearsal hall without revealing themselves, digital erasure was used to remove reflections of people and equipment that should have remained hidden.
The aesthetics of ballet inspired these haunting movie posters for the film's international marketing campaign.
Natalie Portman accepts the Oscar for Best Actress from presenter Jeff Bridges at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, at the Kodak Theatre on Feb. 27, 2011.
After winning the Academy Award for Best Actress, Portman was asked backstage about experiencing such a momentous event as pregnancy at the same time as winning an Oscar. "It feels, you know, like a protection against all of the hoopla, and you know, the part that keeps you centered, where your meaning is, what is actually important in the midst of a lot of shiny stuff that is more superficial."
When asked what her next dream is, for herself and her child, Portman said, "The next dream I have in terms of very short-term future is staying in bed, not having to do my makeup or hair, and keeping my sweats on, relaxing. And for my child, I mean, just to be happy and healthy I think is what every parent could ever wish for."
"Would it be too crazy to think you might name your baby Oscar?" one reporter asked.
"I think that's probably definitely out of the question, yeah," she replied.