Silver Screen: Black Swan ****

Silver Screen: Black Swan  ****
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Silver Screen: Black Swan ****
Bryan Miller

"Intense ballet movie" sounds, if not oxymoronic, at least silly, and yet Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, a trippy retelling of Swan Lake, couldn't be more intense if it was about a cocaine-addicted high-wire-walking bomb squad technician (played by Gary Busey). Like Aronofsky's first major feature, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan pins you back in your seat with sheer sensory overload: frantic movement, hallucinatory tangents, stark imagery, and an overbearing soundtrack cranked all the way up. Unlike Requiem, though, there's more lurking here beneath the bombast and gimmick.

Natalie Portman, looking her most frail and fragile, stars as Nina, the new lead in her company's performance of Swan Lake, wherein a virginal princess is trapped in the body of a white swan, and fails to have the curse broken by her prince when he is seduced away by her sinister double, the black swan. Her manipulative director, the Continental cad Thomas (Vincent Cassel), dubs her the perfect white swan, but doubts her ability to transcend her own timidity (and frigidity) to convey the sensual power of the black swan.

In fairness, the skeezy Frenchman is right; poor Nina is as repressed as Stephen King's Carrie, suffering under the oppressive maternal presence not of a religious zealot but of an obsessive stage mother. Nina's a second-generation ballerina, raised by her demanding and unhinged single mother who barely masks her feeling that the birth of her daughter ended her own career in dance.

Now Nina, babied at home and solicited at work, is further perplexed by the arrival of a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who quickly rises through the ranks to become her understudy. She's conversely a sympathetic and even alluring presence and an immediate threat, complicating the dilemmas both at home and at work-- troubles that are beginning to merge onto one overwhelming crisis.

But in Aronofsky's hands, the stressful becomes the nightmarish. Nina's psychological torment becomes manifest in physical mutilations that may or may not be self-inflicted, and the line between fantasy and reality blurs.

The parallels are, to say the least, apparent, and Aronofsky hews closely to them. Outlandish as the interpretation may be, it never stops being a fairly faithful retelling of the ballet, with artistry substituted for both the object of desire and the magic they perform. For all the talk of sex-- and for all the actual sex, which is steamy indeed-- nobody's in any kind of danger of falling in love with anybody else in the film. If there's any love to be courted, it's from the audience of the show. Those familiar with Swan Lake and its multiple variations on the conclusion should be able to gather quickly which one Aronofsky and his trio of screenwriters are moving toward.

You needn't care much, or at all, about ballet to enjoy the movie completely. In fact, Aronofsky revels in the grotesquerie of the art; the beautiful, fluid productions as seen from afar in the crowd, perfectly lighted and costumed, wreak havoc on toes and feet and nails and waistlines. Portman is wan to the point of looking gaunt and knobby, and even the lovely Kunis looks a few sandwiches away from certain death.

Black Swan is torrid, hyper-stylized, lurid, and feverish-- damn near overheated. But it also provides a unique and undeniably powerful experience, offering, at its best, a breathless meta-commentary about art, and at its worst the transcendence of a masterfully orchestrated sensory overload.