Black Swan

Photo: allmoviephoto.com
(Everything isn't beautiful...at the ballet.)

Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. 108 minutes. 14A

Her signs are vital. Her looks? Cold. But she's on her way, looking for the answer. Is she human - or is she dancer?

Don't be surprised if you find yourself humming that, ahem, killer, pop hit after watching Darren Aronofsky's extravagant dance thriller (yes, dance thriller), Black Swan. No, the synthesized existential saga isn't found on the soundtrack. But those ever-timeless questions are definitely posed.

While Aronofsky's most recent hit, The Wrestler explored what happens after someone falls out of fame, Black Swan recounts the maddening decent into it, which apparently involves Animorphing. The intentionally epic drama follows a twenty-something ballet dancer, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who would just kill to star in Swan Lake. At the beginning of the film, Nina seems like a 12-year-old - her body underdeveloped, her bedroom overdecorated (Hello, Prissy Girl Pink!) and her apartment overtaken by her obsessively protective mom (Barbra Hershey), a one-time prima. But when Nina learns that she's going to play both the virginal white swan and the sensually sinister black swan in a new, modernized production of well, you know, she starts to transform into a whole other creature entirely.

Nina is pushed outside her comfort zone by the show's horndog of a director, played by a creeptastic Vincent Cassel, who says that she's too sweet to take on the more sexual alter ego - and then puts his hand up her tutu - and hella sexy frenemy/fellow dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis). All of a sudden, Little Miss Prudish starts wearing lipstick (stolen from her idol and former company star, Beth, who's played by a brilliantly bitchtastic Winona Ryder!), eating cheeseburgers, taking hallucinogenics, masturbating like a mad woman and occasionally, stabbing competitors in the face. Or does she...?

Think of Black Swan as American Ballet Theatre Psycho. It's purposefully exploitative, filled with pitch-black humour, incredibly straight-faced sexuality and brutal violence. The melodramatic story can definitely be a mindfuck for the more traditional dance cinema fan, but it will keep high-brow horror fans on their toes, mainly because it's pieced together in such an artfully over-the-top way.

From the maddeningly metronomic editing and sound layering (look out for those nail clippers!) to the meticulously colour-coordinated backgrounds, everything about Black Swan feels painfully planned, mirroring Nina's (and nearly every other prima ballerina's) underlying battle to be perfectly on point. Or rather, en pointe. The problem is, not all of it works. The script can be very predictable (you'll see the ending coming from the rafters) and well, Showgirls-y. And the sudden bursts of special effects come off a bit too unreal. But most of the time these missteps are masked by Portman's Oscar-worthy performance.

Natalie Portman's Nina is very much akin to Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman. Not only are their characters incredibly maladjusted (and possibly schizophrenic), their portrayals of them are wholly consuming. Portman achieves Nina's ultimate goal by simply staring the audience unflinchingly in the eye. On the red carpet she may seem human but for these two and a half hours, this girl is 100% deeply disturbed dancer. B+

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