Black Swan is a stage door melodrama putting new spins on cliches as old as All About Eve (and maybe Adam). Setting them among ballerinas as opposed to showgirls or movie stars doesn't make them any less familiar.
Yet there's something to admire about Darren Aronofsky's handling of such material, completely aware that he's doling out stock situations, and determined to make them freakier than ever. Black Swan is a head trip (literally for its prima donna) achieving a level of cinematic hysteria that some viewers will call masterful, and others a nuisance. The middle ground where I stand is wobbly as a drunken dancer en pointe.
Each psychologically inflamed frame of Black Swan screams "arty," nearly as loudly as its musical score turning Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake into insanity's soundtrack. Aronofsky sics handheld cameras to stalk characters like serial killers, constantly dropping hallucinatory hints that someone needs to take their meds. That someone is Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a fragile ballerina lifting a lot of emotional baggage.
Nina is chosen to dance the leads in a production of Swan Lake. "I know, it's been done to death," says the company's imperious — is there any other kind in these affairs? — director Thomas (Vincent Cassel). Thomas doesn't realize the foreshadowing of his words. He goes on to describe the plot of Swan Lake, which is helpful for the unwashed like me since the ballet becomes a template for everything happening in Black Swan.
Thomas is confident that Nina can handle the virtuous role of the White Queen but challenges her to prove she can dance the decadent Black Swan. Of course that entails an attempt at seduction, but Nina won't bite. Yet. Sexual repression, obviously sourced by the creepy stage mother (Barbara Hershey) she still lives with, is Nina's weakness. If only she exuded sex appeal, like the new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), who may be bucking for the role.
Or maybe Lily doesn't exist. The wicked point Aronofsky continually gouges into our eyes is that possibly everything in this movie is a figment of Nina's psychosis. That's a razor-thin premise to dance upon, and Aronofsky — mostly — pulls it off.
Even when dialogue is too double-intended, the screen bleeds with garish self-indulgence and Black Swan simply gets too darn loud, it's an interesting trip. The screenplay keeps fascinating, irregular rhythm with Aronofsky's shock touches — a bloody toenail and peeled skin are this film's equivalent of the staple gun sores in his previous film, The Wrestler. Black Swan is erratic like its anti-heroine, and that's daring change for the holiday movie season.
Portman deserves the festival accolades she has earned as Nina, if not the Oscar some reviewers are ready to hand her. The physical demands of the role are obvious — as a former dancer, Portman displays fine muscle memory — and the role's internalized anguish leaks through her faintest expressions. But we realize Nina is wacko from the get-go, so the performance lacks true surprise.
There are juicy, if familiar, turns by Hershey, Cassel and Kunis, and casting Winona Ryder as a washed-up diva with a grudge must be some kind of inside joke. That's probably the best way to assess the whole of Black Swan. After a viewing, my cultured colleague John Fleming remarked that it seems like Aronofsky doesn't like ballet. If he does, he certainly has a bizarre way of showing it.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.