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Published: Friday, December 10, 2010, 12:01 a.m.

Portman’s intensity fortifies absurd ‘Black Swan’

  • Natalie Portman is a ballerina with a dual role in “Black Swan.”

    Fox Searchlight, Niko Tavernise

    Natalie Portman is a ballerina with a dual role in “Black Swan.”

“Black Swan” is ridiculous claptrap of a particularly lively kind, an overheated collection of half-baked ideas crowned by an intensely committed lead performance.
It is a ballet psycho-horror film, a subgenre we don’t see nearly enough. Like the best kind of horror, the supernatural has nothing to do with what’s happening here; it comes from within.
From early in the story, we can see that Nina (played by Natalie Portman) is at the extreme edge of her sanity. In fact, director Darren Aronofsky won’t let you forget it.
A ballerina who lands the coveted lead role(s) in a new production of “Swan Lake,” Nina is obsessed with perfection, like any good ballet practitioner.
Dominated by her mother (Barbara Hershey) and the ballet company director (Vincent Cassel, from the recent “Mesrine” films), Nina struggles with playing both the White Swan — which her impeccable technique is made for — and the Black Swan.
As we are reminded umpteen-and-twenty times, playing the Black Swan will require Nina to go beyond her frosty talent and let loose a lusty, wicked, down-and-dirty dark side. But her mother has made her such a neurotic “good girl” that the effort to be wild might be too much.
The characters in this closed-off hothouse are pure stereotypes: Of course the mother is a frustrated dancer who gave up her career for her daughter, of course the director uses sex as a weapon, of course the former prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) has gone ‘round the bend herself.
And there’s a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who’s not only a threat to Nina, but also the embodiment of the sexy personality the virginal Nina needs to engage. Lily has a winged tattoo across her back, while Nina’s shoulders are erupting with a much stranger sort of phenomenon.
Aronofsky made “The Wrestler” last year, and he recognizes that the worlds of wrestling and ballet share a backstage grunge, a focus on bruised bodies and bloody toes. “Black Swan” looks awful (I assume by design), a hellish vision only slightly mitigated by the fact that things turn beautiful onstage.
And speaking of beauty, I find it slightly irritating that the name of the composer of “Swan Lake” is buried in the secondary credits, when the credit for Clint Mansell’s original music is prominent. The fellow’s name is Tchaikovsky, and at least half of the effect of the final sequence of “Black Swan” is because of his 135-year-old efforts.
Having tweaked the movie thus far, I will confess that that final sequence is a humdinger. Ham-handed as it is, “Black Swan” works up a certain force; it has some of the low-rent misery of an indie such as “Frownland,” mixed with credible locations (if William Friedkin of “The French Connection” had directed a ballet movie in the 1970s, it might have turned out like this).
Natalie Portman’s trembling conviction deserves better than this pretentious setting, and her on-edge intensity is memorable. In a movie where all the female characters look alike and seem to melt into a single hysterical figure of terror, Portman keeps Nina as clean and pale as a bone.

“Black Swan” (two stars)

Ridiculous claptrap of a lively kind, a ballet psycho-horror film about a dancer (Natalie Portman) losing it as she tackles dual roles in “Swan Lake.” Darren Aronofsky’s movie is a collection of half-baked ideas, given some force by Portman’s intensely committed performance and the sweep of Tchaikovsky’s music.

Rated: R for nudity, language, subject matter

Showing: Guild, Pacific Place

Story tags » MoviesDance

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