“Black Swan” is the closest thing to ballet horror we’re probably ever going to see.
While that may be a novelty, “Black Swan” is not exactly an original story. But in the hands of wildly imaginative director Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”), it possesses a chaotic edginess and visual flair that keep us tantalized.
Driven by a bravura performance by Natalie Portman, it’s a suspenseful, surreal experience, but also one lacking emotional payoff.
Portman plays Nina Sayers, a quiet, reserved ballerina who strives for perfection. She dances with strict rigidity but little passion, according to the troupe’s leader, Thomas (Vincent Cassel).
Nevertheless, he casts her in the lead of the company’s upcoming production of “Swan Lake,” a part that is really two roles: the sweet, innocent Swan Queen and the dark, deathly Black Swan.
Nina dances the Swan Queen just fine, Thomas says. But she must struggle to let her inner darkness rise to the surface to dance the Black Swan. And she finds this difficult — even scary.
But it’s a dream role, one that could bring stardom. And as the company’s past star (Winona Ryder) is harshly discarded, Nina knows the pressure is on.
Whether she can handle it is the question, and her insecurities are heightened when new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives and becomes her understudy.
Nina’s tightly wound mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), also adds to her stress. A former dancer who gave up her own ballet dreams when she became pregnant, Erica guards Nina’s every move and treats her like a child.
And when Lily becomes friendly, Nina suspects scheming motivations. She begins to struggle with reality, as her repressed feelings, fears and urges emerge and the pressure mounts.
Aronofsky has explored other characters in a similar downward spiral of self-destruction, including a drug-addicted mother (Ellen Burstyn) in “Requiem for a Dream” and a disturbed math genius in “Pi.”
Likewise, Nina reaches the brink of psychological disaster.
But while we’re awed by Aronofsky’s cinematic tricks and Portman’s frightened performance, the film is strangely disjointed.
Why would Thomas cast Nina if he has so many doubts about her? Why is she so frightened of her dark side? What’s real and what isn’t?
Aronofsky deftly keeps us guessing. But that also makes it hard to become emotionally rooted in the journey. We can’t take our eyes off of Nina, but do we ultimately care about her?
Viewers will decide for themselves, but in the end, most will find “Black Swan” a wonderfully freaky trip.