A companion piece to The Wrestler’s study of compulsive self-destruction, Aronofsky’s Black Swan invites a similar sort of ridicule: Just as there’s something slightly goofy on paper about the story of an aging wrestler, there’s more than a little cliché in the notion of a repressed ballerina who goes nuts. But often the ridiculous flirts with the sublime. Portman stars as a perfectionist ballet dancer cast in the lead role of Swan Lake. She can play the White Swan, her satanic director (Cassel) sneers, but can she also play the Black? Restrictive Mom (Hershey) holds her back while rival Kunis goads her on, leading to a portrait of frigidity, longing and madness heavily indebted to Polanski’s Repulsion. (There’s a Sapphic tryst in the wings; you get both The Red Shoes and The Red Shoe Diaries.)
As derivative as it may sound, Aronofsky’s sense of style carries it; his use of digital video is as lush and hallucinatory as anything he’s accomplished on film. Black Swan has a documentary quality, and not just because its headliner does her own pirouettes. The movie is as much about Portman’s acting ability as it is about Nina’s jumps and spins; what’s always seemed like a chilly blankness in her performances actually makes sense here. Her task is to peel back layers and show us why she’s a star. The act may be a familiar one, but it still brings the house down.