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12.22.10

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Phaedra
THE MANY FACES: Natalie Portman plays a ballerina striving for perfection.

Gotham City Ballet

'Black Swan' a rigorous, intense pirouette

By Richard von Busack


The weight of Black Swan's entire neon-purple romanticism falls on Natalie Portman's thin shoulders. Starved to a skeleton for the role of a prima ballerina, Portman plays Nina, a dancer in New York alternately coddled and smothered by her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who wakes her up and tucks her in at night. She sleeps in a room surrounded by a busload of stuffed bunnies.

No surprise that the director of the ballet company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is exasperated by Nina's overly fussy, virginal approach to the dance. In our first sight of Thomas, looming behind the rows of seats, he poses like a superhero with arms folded and chest out. Later, after the flamboyant madness and high pitch that is Black Swan, we may start to feel we're watching a rehearsal of the Gotham City Ballet.

On tap is the old mortgage-lifter, Swan Lake. 'It's been done to death, I know, but not like this!' Thomas declares. With the challenge of originality comes worse news. First is the arrival of a new young dancer from San Francisco, Lily (Mila Kunis); and second, the public jettisoning of former diva Beth (Winona Ryder), whom Thomas considers too old for the part.

Trapped among rival, director and mother, Nina starts to crack. Mirrors go bad, and she hears voices. Thomas' advice wanders out of dignified bounds ('Go home and touch yourself'), and the treacherous newcomer Lily begins to look fragrant to the shocked heroine.

Self-mutilation has been in director Darren Aronofsky's work ever since 1998's Pi, and he prepares us for this from the beginning, when Nina cracks her toes in the morning and they sound off like gunshots. Likewise, Aronofsky shoots the breaking in of new slippers in ghastly close-up: the pretty satin thing disemboweled of its insole, the sides stabbed with a sewing needle, the soles slashed with scissors. Nina herself is a skin picker, brutally paring her nails—when they're not being scissored off by her mother.

It's Hershey who makes this fantasy's mom-madness plausible. The best joke in Black Swan is the scene of Nina's ever-ringing cell phone; its screen blares the word 'MOM' in capital block letters.

In the rehearsal scenes, the camera spins around with the dancers, and we hear scuffing of feet and harsh panting. It's all hard, anguish-ridden work. When the music commences, Black Swan finally feels like a great movie, simply because the Tchaikovsky can make us believe anything.

Still, it takes a while to get into the mood of cracked Freudianism Aronofsky is trying to instill here. Some of the awed reception of Black Swan seems to reflect the need for a great movie this time of year—or is it mindfulness of Michael Powell's broken-hearted ghost, grieving at those who couldn't succumb to The Red Shoes?

Portman couldn't be more straight-faced or more plaintive as a woman in peril. Occasionally, she can't reach what she's aiming at, but who can blame her? Show me an actress who can make a face like a dying swan. Yet the most effective moments in this film are the less-cooked, trademark Aronofsky ones: a reprise of a situation in Pi, the nasty experience of walking a plywood tunnel around a construction site with blind turns; the sense of a city that's too loud, too fast, or too close; and the eyes of strangers on overlit, mostly empty subway cars.

'Black Swan' is open in wide release.


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