“Black Swan” operates within a genre that’s defined less by the kind of movie it is, and more by the kind of directors who make it. Aronofsky, who directed “Requiem for a Dream” and “Pi”, specializes in nightmares- the kind created by Lynch and Kubrick. His nightmares are dirty affairs, full of sex and blood and casual hostility.

If it’s nightmares you want, “Black Swan” delivers them in spades. Aronofsky’s tale of a dancer who may or may not be going insane, is a flawed creation, but also an exhilarating and quietly insidious one.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina on the cusp of fame within her company, who dances with precision and technical strength but without passion. She’s stuck emotionally at about 13 years old- she still lives with her overbearing mother (a divine Barbara Hershey) and her pink bedroom is full of stuffed animals and lace. Her life is well-measured and structured, until she’s picked a both the White and Black Swans in her company’s performance of “Swan Lake”. She is suddenly faced with a a rival name Lily (Mila Kunis), and begins to (possibly) lose her mind. To tell you more would both make this review chock-full of spoilers, and, more importantly, make assumptions about what actually does happen in “Black Swan.” Suffice it to say, there will be blood, and a series of icky scenarios involving peeling skin and things growing out of Nina’s back- those who are squeamish would do well to go see “Harry Potter” or something.

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Rated: R

A lot of people will go to see the movie for the sex- yes, fellas, there’s a sex scene between Portman and Kunis, and the fantastic Vincent Cassel also gets some play as the lecherous ballet choreographer Thomas. But the erotica involved is less titillating and more vaguely unpleasant, like a wet dream gone wrong. Far more important is Nina’s body itself, both a tool she uses within her work, and a palette on which we see the transformations (real and imagined) she’s going through. Her body is a map of the demands of a ballet career- the normality of anorexia and bulimia, the cracked toenails and jammed joints and nervous tics.

Vincent Cassel can chew the scenery all he wants (and he does), but this movie belongs to the women. Portman is getting a lot of buzz around her role; I don’t know if it’s the best performance of the year, but her focus and control within this role is stunning. Portman’s Nina is a raw nerve, her eyes perpetually full of terror. In a climactic dance sequence she simply owns the camera, and her energy is intoxicating. Kunis is excellent; unlike some of the other plot points Lily is diabolical in a completely realistic way. She throws off her prey with over-friendliness and relaxed energy, hiding ugliness beneath the surface. Winona Ryder is also lovely as an aging ballet star. But it’s Barbara Hershey who steals the show as Nina’s slightly mad and frustrated mother. Hershey’s scenes throw you off-balance in a way that the other admirable performers just can’t compete with.

Despite some terrific performances, “Black Swan” is far from perfect. Aspects of the movie are a little Film Analysis 101; there are broken or fractured mirrors, denoting Nina’s shattered psyche. Nina’s always dressed in white, while Lily dresses in black. A ballerina music box gets thrown across the room, and the little ballerina inside loses her head. The symbolism is a little too on-the-nose, too clever. It looks like Aronofsky is trying too hard, and he doesn’t have to. If he had let the movie fly on its own merits- the acting, the excellent representation of life in a ballet company, the absolutely gorgeous lighting and camerawork- it would come off more polished than it does now.

“Black Swan” is a strange work of art, and I still can’t tell whether it will be the biggest movie of the season, or a total flop. It is cerebral and pessimistic, and God knows such things generally don’t do well at the box office. But I’m pulling for “Black Swan”- it isn’t perfect, but it has power and soul. Everything else are just details.

About The Author

Emma Johnson is a Blast Magazine critic whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe

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