Review: 'Black Swan'

From its gnarled toes and molting backs to its leering coaches and sexy doppelgangers, Darren Aronofsky's fractured fairy tale "Black Swan" is a funhouse mirror, a gloriously out-there hunk of claustrophobic, trippy balletsploitation.

It's also extremely funny, which is a quality the increasingly impressive Aronofsky ("The Wrestler," "Requiem for a Dream") is not exactly known for.

From the first scenes, we're deep in the hothouse world of elite ballet. The childlike Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a perfectionist company dancer with a New York troupe. Her artistic director, the lecherous Tom Leroy (Vincent Cassel), announces that the company will open its season with Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." "Done to death, I know," Leroy says, practically bumping into the fourth wall. "But not like this." Indeed.

"Swan Lake," of course, demands that its lead play both Odette, the virginal white swan, and Odile, the seductive black swan. Impossibly high-strung Nina is a shoo-in as Odette, but Leroy tells her again and again that she can't hack Odile's carnality.

Enter, naturally, the dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), technically imperfect but wildly passionate. Lily does stuff like hang out with boys and take drugs, which seems downright everyday compared with Nina's circumscribed universe.

The ostensibly twentysomething Nina still lives with her mommy (the terrifying Barbara Hershey - who knew her whole career was leading up to a brilliant "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" tribute) in a pink room filled with stuffed animals. Her mother also obsessively paints portraits of her daughter and, after Leroy casts Nina as Odette/Odile, chooses to celebrate this victory with a frosting-covered cake even non-dancers will know Nina can't possibly eat. Audience members with stage-mom issues will end up in the fetal position by the last reel.

As "Black Swan" heads into masterfully realized horror that jetés on the razor's edge of camp, Nina struggles with her roles - Odette/Odile, child/adult and virgin/whore, just to name a few - and her mental grip becomes looser and looser. Is Lily her real-life competition or an imagined id to Nina's china-doll superego? Why does she keep seeing herself in crowds? And what is going on with her shoulder?

Portman has to carry wide swaths of the movie in her face, which often takes up the whole frame, but she delivers in a careful, measured manner (until she's required to go clean over the top). Kunis, who gets the lion's share of the laugh lines, reminds you that she was the beating heart of "That '70s Show" and that her role as a straight man in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" was probably a waste of talent. In a brilliantly mean bit of stunt casting, Winona Ryder shows up as the bitter, former company lead on the cusp of retirement, which she plays out as the Ghost of 1990s Past. What a trouper.

It's no surprise "Black Swan" is the distaff version of "The Wrestler." Both crafts have a sideways relationship to popular, mainstream athletics and culture. Both wring drama out of body manipulation issues - he uses steroids, she makes herself throw up. Both linger over the discipline's rituals (dressing for the ring, breaking in toe shoes).

But not only has Aronofsky made peace with his psychedelic urges (Anyone remember "The Fountain?" Didn't think so), he's also gotten much better about taming his baroque side. This is more the street-level oddness of "Pi" than the slicked-up drugginess of "Requiem for a Dream." It's still a trip down the rabbit hole, but hand-held and gritty.

Nor is Aronofsky shy about referencing his antecedents. There's a ton of early Polanski, a fair amount of Cronenberg and a bit of Japanese body horror as imagined by directors such as Takashi Miike and Shinya Tsukamoto. The scene of Nina's tearing off a busted cuticle is somehow more squirm-inducing than all of "127 Hours." No wonder he's in talks to direct "Wolverine II" - Nina's Odile could eat that hairy little dude alive.

And unlike entirely too many contemporary movies, the dialogue in "Black Swan" is virtually unneeded. The weakest scenes are the talkiest and feel tacked on, exposition-fairy style.

No mumblecore yammering here - "Black Swan" might as well be a silent movie, which makes for some of the purest cinema we've seen from an American filmmaker in a long time. Dive in.

"Black Swan"

Our grade: A

Genres: Drama, Thriller

Running Time: 108 min

MPAA rating: R

Release Date: Dec 22, 2010