Natalie Portman, a deeply dark 'Black Swan': movie review

Natalie Portman stars in a ballet film that's a 'willfully deranged quasi-horrorfest.'

Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight/AP
Natalie Portman is shown in a scene from 'Black Swan.'

"Black Swan" is a love-it-or-hate-it movie. Put me in the (sort of) hate-it column. My slight qualification here is because Darren Aronofsky's movie starring Natalie Portman as an increasingly unhinged ballerina gets points for being unlike anything else that's out there.

But being different isn't the same thing as being good. Watching this willfully deranged quasi-horrorfest, I would gratefully have chucked it all for a revival of "The Red Shoes," which was also pretty flagrant, though less deranged.

The Powell-Pressburger "Red Shoes" (1948) inspired an entire generation of girls to become ballerinas. "Black Swan" is likely to have the opposite effect. Scrape off the film's heebie-jeebie folderol and you're left with this: Become a dancer, go mad.

Portman's Nina, a virginal young thing with a benevolent-despot stage mom (Barbara Hershey) and a mania for perfection, lands the role of the Swan Queen in an upcoming, daringly "revisionist" (i.e., sexy) production of "Swan Lake." The problem is, Nina must also dance the ballet's bewitching Black Swan.

Because the stud-Svengali artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is skeptical that Nina can make it over to the dark side, he brings in a rival dancer, the sexed-up Lily (Mila Kunis), to act as both goad and back-up. (She also becomes Nina's fantasy lover, or maybe it's just another one of those now-you-see-it-now-you-don't dream sequences.)

Working from a script by Mark Hey-man, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin, Aronofsky plays up the thematic parallels between Nina's dissolution and the narrative of "Swan Lake." He dresses Nina in white and her co-players in dark colors, just in case we missed the point.

He blurs the line from the get-go between her reality and her rapidly accelerating fearful fantasies. A split toenail in this movie is never just a split toenail. It's a portal into horror, or, to be more specific, artsy B-movie horror shenanigans.

The technique of visually connecting a crazy person's interior and exterior worlds has been in the movies since at least "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920). But Nina has so little psychological substance in "Black Swan," and Portman's performance is so glacéed, that watching her come apart seems like an exercise in voyeurism. Or sadism. It doesn't even matter, on some level, if Nina is a dancer. Her obsession with ballet has very little to do with artistic expression – it's obsession for the sake of obsession (an Aronofsky specialty – see "The Wrestler" and "Pi").

Aronofsky doesn't exactly demonstrate a reverence for the art himself. He uses the ballet world, with its notoriously grueling physical and psychological regimens, as an excuse for a Grand Guignol meltdown. (The ballet's score in the film, by the way, is not 100 percent Tchaikovsky, which means this is the second time in a month that Pyotr Ilyich has gotten the bum's rush in the movies – the other being the execrable new "Nutcracker 3-D," which doesn't even feature dancing.)

It was around the time Nina sprouted feathers that I decided "Black Swan" was either a vast put-on (too obvious) or vastly pretentious (more likely). Many moviegoers, especially high-toned ones, will believe otherwise. For them, anything this feverishly absurd and obviously made by smart people must be a work of art.

You can pick out all the references in this movie to other movies, not only "Red Shoes" and "Caligari," but also, for starters, "Phantom of the Opera," "All About Eve," "Repulsion," and Aronofsky's own dreamy-druggy freak show "Requiem for a Dream." In the end, however, "Black Swan" has the distinction of being its own beast. It's a dubious distinction. Grade: C- (Rated R for strong sexual content, violent images, language, and drug use.)

IN PICTURES: Natalie Portman's roles


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