Darren Aronofsky's backstage ballet thriller Black Swan is lurid and voluptuous pulp fun, with a sensationalistic fairy-tale allure. You can't take it too seriously, but you can't tear your eyes away from it, either. The movie is all about what happens to Nina (Natalie Portman), an ambitious, repressed New York ballerina with the face of a saddened porcelain doll, when she gets cast as the lead in a bold new production of Swan Lake. Nina is supposed to be a technically flawless dancer who lacks inner fire. She's the ultimate overachieving student, executing each movement with supreme by-the-book ''perfection,'' which means she's ideal to play the saintly White Swan half of her role. But what Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the Balanchine-lite whip-cracking French leader of the troupe, wants to know is: Can Nina dance the part of the duplicitous, seductive Black Swan as well? To find out, he makes a pass at her and she fights him off by literally biting him back. That moment of angry rebellion is what nets her the role. It proves to Thomas that she can bring her inner Black Swan to life. But can she really?
In virtuoso movies like Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, Aronofsky has been drawn to characters who push themselves to extremes. So you may be seduced, early on in Black Swan, into thinking that you're seeing an in-depth feel-the-pain, live-the-rush dance psychodrama a ballet film as the young Scorsese might have made it. Aronofsky shoots the entire movie with a handheld camera, and his images have a burnished, raw-silk night-world chic, the shots weaving and bobbing as they follow Nina's bunned head through the stark halls of Lincoln Center. The director lingers on details of physical turmoil in much the same way he did in The Wrestler: There's a moment when Nina is dancing in her makeshift home studio, and something goes crack it turns out to be her big toenail, split in two and gushing blood. On stage, the camera spins with Nina in a reverie of frenzied, whirling elation. It's like an acid-trip version of The Red Shoes, with male dancers morphing into feathered creatures a vision of dance as a dancer might experience it, from the inside out, not as detached, observed movement but as a series of fluidly baroque exertions.
Yet Aronofsky's technique is far subtler than the story he's telling. Nina, a girl in a grown woman's body, is surrounded by women who trump her in treachery. The snarling dressing-room bitchfests bring ballet into the age of claws-out princess culture, and everywhere Nina looks, there's another archetypal vixen-destroyer. Lily (Mila Kunis), the sexy new troupe member, is a free spirit with wings tattooed on her back; she becomes Nina's friend, confidante, lover, and rival, all at once. Winona Ryder plays Beth, the raging over-the-hill dancer who's cruelly put out to pasture. And Nina's mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), is a real piece of work, an unhappy stage harridan out of Tennessee Williams whose dreams for her daughter are etched into the bitter, melting beauty of her aging face. The two still live together in a cramped Upper West Side apartment, where Nina barely has the privacy to indulge her sexual desires. To free herself, she has to act out.
The theme of Black Swan is the hidden violence of ballet the emotional violence, and the physical violence, too. That's a great taking-off point for a dance melodrama, but as Nina starts to become both victimized and liberated by her buried fantasies, Black Swan turns out to be nothing more (or less) than a highfalutin what is real and what's not? horror film. It's Repulsion in toe shoes. Natalie Portman has never looked this severely lovely. In Black Swan, she's an extraordinary camera object: ghostly and possessed, all sinewy alabaster will. Yet it's part of the design of the movie that her performance remains quite passive. Nina keeps dancing like the metronomic good girl she is, and Thomas continues to gripe that she doesn't have what it takes to play the Black Swan after all. Which makes you wonder: Why did he even cast her? Or rather: Why couldn't Aronofsky have chosen a far less diagrammatic, bare-bones script? In its slightly psycho, what-she-did-for-love way, Black Swan touches a certain masochistic grandeur nestled within the erotic mystique of ballet. Yet the film is powered by enough conventional bloodbath theatrics to be, in the end, more shocking than ravishing. B+