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Review: 'Black Swan' a gorgeous nightmare

The Associated Press, Wednesday, December 1, 2010, 10:15am (PST)

"Black Swan" is at once gorgeous and gloriously nutso, a trippy, twisted fantasy that delights and disturbs in equal measure.

Darren Aronofsky takes the same stripped-down fascination with, and appreciation for, the minutiae of preparation that he brought to his Oscar-nominated "The Wrestler" — the best film of 2008, according to yours truly — and applies it to the pursuit of a different kind of artistry: ballet. All the intimate, behind-the-scenes moments are there, the matter-of-fact glimpses of the tricks that go into the performance as well as the toll this demanding activity takes on the body.

But then the director mixes in a wildly hallucinatory flair as "Black Swan" enters darker psychological territory. Working with his frequent cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, and incorporating some dazzling visual effects, Aronofsky spins a nightmare scenario within a seemingly gentle, pristine world. The camera swoops and swoons, making us feel as off-kilter as the film's tormented heroine. The visions and dreams soar seriously over-the-top at times, but always knowingly so, and with great style; "Black Swan" wallows in its grandiosity, and if you're willing to go along with it, you'll find yourself wowed by one of the best films of the year.

Natalie Portman gives it her all, physically and mentally, in a brave and demanding performance as Nina, a driven New York City ballerina who has zero life outside of dance. Portman had studied ballet growing up, but "Black Swan" required a grueling regimen of training five hours a day, everyday, for 10 months before production even began.

Innocently enduring a sheltered existence with her smothering mother, Erica (a deeply creepy Barbara Hershey), a former ballet dancer herself now living vicariously through her daughter, Nina is stuck in a state of arrested development. She's immensely talented and dedicated but still a child inside, as evidenced by the fluffy stuffed bunnies that populate her girly-pink bedroom, and the way her mommy still tucks her in at night.

When it comes time to stage a bold, new production of "Swan Lake," the company's artistic director (a skeevy and manipulative Vincent Cassel) thinks Nina is perfect to play the White Swan. But he needs a dancer who also can portray the fierce sexuality of the Black Swan. Enter Lily (Mila Kunis), a savvy and confident newcomer who represents Nina's biggest threat to getting the lead role. So yes, the script from Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin does have its obvious influences — "The Red Shoes," "The Turning Point" and "All About Eve" among them — and yet "Black Swan" emerges as a fascinating entity all its own.

Nina snags the part, with Lily as her understudy. The two women don't exactly become friends but achieve a sort of competitive symbiosis; the deeper Nina gets into rehearsals, the more she sees Lily in her mind, both as a frightening force and as the kind of woman she'd like to be. The fact that Portman and Kunis resemble each other in features and stature greatly enhances this effect — and yes, the hotly anticipated love scene between the two is indeed hot.

But Nina also sees her body transforming, morphing grotesquely as she finds both the white and black swans within herself, with the romantic but rough ballet costumes from the fashion designers known as Rodarte almost becoming an extension of her body. Or does she? By blending realism with fantastical elements, Aronofsky continuously keeps us guessing as to what's actually happening and what's a figment of Nina's imagination.

One thing's for certain, though: "Black Swan" will leave you feeling stunned as you leave the theater. And humming Tchaikovsky.

"Black Swan," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use. Running time: 110 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G — General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.

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