Dancing Swan Lake, as any ballerina can testify, is painful, torturous and stressful. But to my knowledge, no Swan Queen has yet plunged into psychosexual insanity and started killing off the corps de ballet. In the overrated, overwrought and overhyped Black Swan, director Darren (The Wrestler) Aronofsky advances his dark passion for exploring twisted souls in torment, substituting the backstage melodrama of the ballet for the brutality of the ring. He’s been watching too many Roman Polanski movies. This exercise in hysteria is so over the top that you don’t know whether to scream or laugh. Despite an emotionally gripping performance by Natalie Portman, it’s nothing more than a lavishly staged Repulsion in toe shoes.
The star, who trained for months to turn her own tours jetés into feats of deserved critical applause, plays Nina, a fragile, emaciated dancer suddenly recruited by a fictional ballet company in Lincoln Center to play the black and white split personalities of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Queen. The virginal, innocent side comes naturally, but the evil side needs work. Nina finds herself torn between the seductive tease of her demanding artistic director (Vincent Cassel, in a nice change of pace from his usual thugs and perverts) and the Machiavellian domination of her control-freak mother (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina who implants the obsession that dance comes with emotional sacrifice and physical agony at the cost of everything else in life; all the while she competes for attention with a sexy, competitive and devious new ballerina from California (Mila Kunis), who wants to dance the lead herself. Nina goes over to the dark side to break down her inhibitions, exploring her sensuality, paranoia, lust, rebellion and thirst for blood in a circus of grotesque debauchery. One of the many chuckles in this sideshow of decadence is how Nina manages to rehearse so hard all day that she splits her toenails open, yet still stays out all night in a haze of booze, drugs and hot lesbian sex. In a series of surreal, heavy-handed, Dali-inspired metaphors, she sees visions of herself in dark tunnels and subways, draped in black. Her skin peels away. Bloody rashes and self-inflicted wounds appear. By the time her metamorphosis is complete, as she resorts to murder and flies onstage opening night with webbed feet, the movie has gone haywire–and so has the audience.
Ms. Portman, in all fairness, goes through hell to conquer the punishing steps and rituals of the dance, but it pays off in spades. By the finale, brilliantly choreographed by the electrifying dancer Benjamin Millepied (who dances the Dying Swan and doubles as Ms. Portman’s current beau in real life), it no longer matters that her legwork is executed by a body double: She seems ready to join the American Ballet Theatre tomorrow. As an actor, she has the captivating grace, body language and charm to effortlessly coax the viewer into her neurotic world. The big problem is Darren Aronofsky, whose corny vision of madness is more hilarious than scary. Borrowing every ballet-movie cliché from The Red Shoes and Spectre of the Rose, among others, he’s jerry-built an absurd Freudian nightmare that is more wet dream than bad dream, with all the subtlety of a chain saw.
Running time 103 minutes
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey