With his psychological thriller "Black Swan," director Darren Aronofsky ("The Fighter") again concerns himself with a performer's driving need to be in the spotlight, and its corresponding psychic toll.
No one can be blamed for finding "Black Swan" overwrought or ridiculous: It's both. But those who meet Aronofsky halfway can get off on this exercise in dichotomy: the ballet film wedded to Grand Guignol, an exploitation picture granted a big star (Natalie Portman), "Showgirls" transplanted to Lincoln Center.
Dichotomy is the heart of the problem for longtime ensemble player Nina Sayers (Portman), who covets the leading dual role in a high-scale New York ballet production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." Though she has the attention of Balanchine-inspired artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) -- or is that the "attentions"? -- he vocally questions her ability to play both the innocent White Swan and the sinful Black Swan.
Leroy takes the leap of casting Nina, seemingly to stroke his own ego as he creates a star, and to take advantage of her gratitude. "Perfection is not just about control," he purrs. "It's also about letting go."
Letting go is, of course, dangerously close to coming unhinged, as Nina steadily does over the course of the film. Screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin (working from a story by Heinz) paint Nina's issues in the broadest of strokes: Nina's jealously protective, smothering stage mother (Barbara Hershey, enjoying her "Mommy Dearest" moment) has made her daughter dangerously repressed, and it'll take only a few choice shoves to send the dancer over the edge.
In the 21st century, it's hard to swallow that such a delicate flower has made it into the ballet elite with her sensibilities as yet unchallenged. And the film flirts with sexism, in part by suggesting that Nina's ambition dooms her to bipolar mania: She's either sexually frigid or vamp, victim or victimizer, snapping as easily as her brutalized dancer's feet.
Ironically, Aronofsky also casts a sympathetic gaze on the well-documented punishment of the ballerina: the physical deterioration, the not-uncommon endurance of sexual harassment, and the inevitability of being discarded for the latest model. The "All About Eve" model recurs as prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (a cleverly cast Winona Ryder) must yield to Nina, who in turn fears her sexy understudy Lily (Mila Kunis).
Where "Black Swan" most succeeds is in Aronofsky's high-flying style, his approach to the story as a fever dream blurring the fine line between a performer playing a role and a psychotic succumbing to delusion. Though crack cinematographer Matthew Libatique ("Requiem for a Dream") shoots roughly in handheld 16 mm and digital, there's a refinement to the projection of Nina's fears in visual terms: One swooping shot simulates the depth of 3D.
The camera has a more intimate relationship with Nina than any character in the story. Aronofsky holds in close-ups Portman's perpetually anguished look, a weak, overwhelmed demeanor that gradually morphs into one of feral, predatory ambition. The director also grabs hungrily at dreamlike effects: dopplegangers, reflections and the freaky suggestion that Nina's self-improvement requires molting.
"Black Swan" is, by definition, a male fantasy about a woman, territory that has been trod more skillfully and empathically by filmmakers like David Lynch and even the socially unpopular Roman Polanski. Still, designed as the passion of Natalie Portman, Aronofsky's film takes us on a visceral wild ride, scored to Tchaikovsky.