Natalie Portman as an unstable dancer in the inert Black Swan.

One thing you can say about Darren Aronofsky: You never know what he’s going to do next. A through-line connecting his movies to one another would read like a 2008 stock-market graph. There was Pi, a grainy black-and-white thriller about a Jewish math prodigy; then Requiem for a Dream, a hyper-stylized melodrama about drug addicts in New York City; then The Fountain, a grandiose metaphysical nut-out with a time-traveling Hugh Jackman in pursuit of the fountain of youth; and then The Wrestler, a gritty realist tale about the redemption of a burned-out athlete. That Aronofsky’s next project would be a psychological horror movie about a disturbed ballerina seemed no more or less logical than the notion that he’d adapt Bleak House as a 3-D musical. The Wrestler is the only one of Aronofsky’s films I’ve really liked, but I approach each new one with fresh excitement: Though his movies can be risibly off-kilter, Aronofsky is a filmmaker of ambition, energy, and scope—a guy whose reach has a way of thrillingly exceeding his grasp.

The reach/grasp ratio is way off inBlack Swan(FoxSearchlight), a movie that combines some truly stunning visual and cinematic ideas with some truly terrible, well, ideas. Yet the conceit at its heart is not unpromising. Like the über-ballet movie of all time, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, Black Swan is a dark fairy tale about a ballerina who risks being destroyed by an all-consuming role. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a dancer in the corps of a company that’s never quite named as the New York City Ballet. The company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), a sadistic womanizer who’s clearly meant to recall NYCB founder George Balanchine, is casting a production of Swan Lake that will apparently reinvent the Tchaikovsky chestnut from the ground up. (How it will do that, we’re never told. Though Aronofsky fetishizes tulle tutus and close-ups of bleeding feet, he seems remarkably uninterested in actual dancing, and what choreography we do see looks pretty conventional.)

Nina, after a respectable but undistinguished career as a low-ranking dancer, desperately covets the lead in Swan Lake, a demanding part in which the same dancer must play the innocent white swan, Odette, and her wicked black double, Odile. But Thomas gives her to understand, repeatedly and unsubtly, that while her form is flawless, Nina lacks the inner fire and wildness and all-around bitchiness to dance Odile. One of Thomas’ many refined cruelties is an ability to fan rivalries among his female dancers, and Nina soon becomes fixated on surpassing both Beth (Winona Ryder), a veteran female ballerina on the verge of retirement, and Lilly (Mila Kunis), a sultry, hard-partying younger member of the corps who seems to possess all the Odilian qualities that Nina lacks. The childlike and seemingly virginal Nina still lives with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), a glittering-eyed loon who gave up her own dance career to have a child and who now spends the day painting creepy portraits in her studio.

And that’s all you need by way of setup, since the drama of casting, rehearsing, and performing Swan Lake is soon engulfed by the drama taking place in Nina’s own mind. Most of Black Swan unfolds in a feverish, lurid dream space that we can only assume to be a representation of the heroine’s subjective experience—though it sometimes does appear as if something objectively nefarious, even supernatural, may be happening in those cramped rooms and smoky rehearsal studios.

By moments, Black Swan dabbles effectively in the grisly vocabulary of body horror. In a scene that recalls Cronenberg’s The Fly, Nina finds the skin of her hand peeling off in long strips. At moments when she’s close to finding the black-swan character, she develops goosebumps that give her flesh the look of plucked poultry. These scenes have a primal power that, even out of context, can get your palms sticky with sweat. (Just watch the trailer.) But as the movie goes on, this visceral imagery of bodily disintegration never finds a dramatic context to make sense in. Nina is just a collection of neurotic behaviors, not a character, and nearly all the conflict on screen derives from her victimization (or perceived victimization?) at the hands of others. We never understand what’s at stake for her as an artist, other than sheer achievement for achievement’s sake. With this movie’s curious inattention to the question of why performing matters to its heroine, it could just as easily be a movie about a girl’s brutal struggle to become Baskin Robbins’ employee of the month.

Given the Cronenberg-like flaying I administered to Natalie Portman in my review of last year’s Brothers, I feel it’s important to specify that Portman is not to blame for what’s wrong with Black Swan. She may not be the most nuanced of actresses, but this role—a passive, frightened girl trying really hard to be perfect—is a lot better suited to Portman’s strengths than the earthy working-class mother she played in Brothers. She’s clearly knocked herself out (and, scarily, dropped 20 pounds from her already sub-size-0 frame) to get the ballet rehearsal scenes to look right. (The actual dancing is done by members of the Pennsylvania Ballet along with Sarah Lane and Kimberly Prosa as Portman’s body doubles. *) And in at least one scene, the content of which I can’t reveal without spoiling the plot, Portman does a nice little piece of real (which is to say, non-“bravura”) acting. Just as her character drives herself to the edge of madness in pursuit of the black-swan role, Portman toils slavishly to realize Aronofsky’s mad vision. It isn’t her fault that, despite Black Swan’s visual splendor and bursts of grand guignol excess, this emotionally inert movie never does grow wings.

Update, Dec. 3, 2010: A mention of Portman’s body doubles was added to this review after it was originally published. (Return to the updated sentence.)

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