DENVER, Colo. - Natalie Portman’s big screen career began with precocious roles in “The Professional” and “Beautiful Girls.”
The tyke of an actress brought images of the next Jodie Foster to mind. Then, along came those stilted performances in the “Star Wars” prequels, and it seemed as if her talent was in retreat.
She fulfills that early promise, and then some, in “Black Swan,” a film pole vaulting her to the top of the Best Actress competition.
If only the film itself deserved such huzzahs.
Director Darren Aronofsky’s latest is the ultimate edition of style over substance, a dizzying portrait of an artist out of control that fails to make the subject matter worth our time. It’s gorgeous and frightening, a tapestry of images without a boring frame in the bunch.
Yet, by the final reel, we find ourselves emotionally detached even though every meter that counts is cranked up to 11.
Portman plays Nina, a hard-charging ballet dancer who lands the lead role in a new production of “Swan Lake.” The show’s director (Vincent Cassel) isn’t sure she can handle the darkly erotic sequences in the show. He tries to stoke her artistic fires by aggressively romancing her, but the dancer seems removed from her erogenous zones.
She has plenty on her plate beyond pushing away her director’s meaty paws.
Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is well versed in the art of passive aggressive support, and the ballet company’s newest import (Mila Kunis) could swipe the role right from under Nina.
Aronsky stages “Black Swan” as “All About Eve” meets, well, any psychologically damaged portrait that comes to mind. Nina appears to be going insane, but is there more to her feverish nightmares than just pre-show jitters?
Portman is utterly believable as a top flight dancer. She’s turned her normally svelte body into an artistic vessel, every sinew primed for action. Her face, normally open and radiant on screen, is screwed into a scowl as her mental state heads south. The ballet sequences are riveting, and there’s not a second where you doubt Portman’s character is the ingenue she’s supposed to be.
She’s intoxicating to behold, period.
Kunis and Cassel provide able support, and the dance sequences might cause a new generation of ballet fans to emerge.
But what’s the ultimate point? The narrative teases us about the cost of artistic integrity, but it can’t deliver characters worth our devotion. And strip away the elaborate staging and booming score and you’re left with story archetypes - and moth-balled ones at that.
The film hits our sensory organs so hard, so often that we seek any semblance of relief. Instead, the melodrama ratchets up in the film’s waning moments, leaving us with a faint echo of Aronofsky’s previous triumph, “The Wrestler.”
That movie had Mickey Rourke’s equally magical performance, but we cared so very deeply for his aging grappler to find salvation.
The same cannot be said with “Black Swan,” as memorable a visual treat as you’ll see all year but one that’s ultimately hollow.
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