‘Black Swan’ Reviewed: Just a Little Tutu Crazy Ballet Tale

Full of swirling camera movements and carefully thought out symbolism, Aronofsky's Oscar bait is also luridly lunatic

Here in New York City, we call them “bun heads.”

They are the young female ballet students and ballerinas one sees coming by subway to the Lincoln Center area, where they loiter about before and after performances at its theaters and adjacent Juilliard School.

These girls, in their teens and early twenties, are instantly recognizable. They are skeletal thin, wear their hair in a tightly coiled knot atop their head (hence the nickname) and glide purposefully about on legs that never end.

I would love to know their reactions to “The Black Swan,” director Darren Aronofsky’s intense but loopy Grand Guignol of a movie set in the world of ballet. Better yet, I’d love to know their mothers’ reactions.

That’s because, in this psychological thriller, when the pressure starring in “Swan Lake” becomes tutu much for a young professional ballerina (played with ferocious intensity by Natalie Portman), she goes bonkers.

Ballet movies are always tricky. Let’s face it, though the art form has been around for a couple centuries and everyone has been dragged to at least one Christmas-time performance of “The Nutcracker,” ballet is always going to be more class than mass.

For most people, a nephew of mine had it right when, at age 4, partway through seeing his first live performance of “Nutcracker,” he loudly demanded from his balcony seat, “Change the channel!”

But ballet has its fans (hey, I’m one) and, over the years, any number of movie directors, whether balletomanes or just attracted to its grace and the talent, discipline and commitment required to become a great dancer, have made movies set in that world.

There was “The Red Shoes” (right) the classic British drama from director Michael Powell (with Emeric Pressburger) adapted from a Hans Christian Andersen story, a movie not all that dissimilar to “Black Swan.” In the 1949 romantic drama, a young ballerina (played by the exquisite Moira Shearer) sacrifices all for her art.

In 1977, Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine acted up a storm as longtime ballet frenemies in “The Turning Point,” director Harold Ross’ turgid drama. More recently, in 2000 there was “Center Stage,” a “Fame”-like drama chronicling the ups and downs of a trio of young ballerinas at a high pressure New York dance academy.  And director Robert Altman came a cropper in 2003 with “The Company,” a rambling and, you’ll pardon the pun, pointless ensemble drama about a young ballerina (Neve Campbell, who also served as co-writer).

With “Black Swan,” Aronofsky dials up to 11 his patented passion — evident in his earlier movies,  “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream” — for depicting paranoia running deep. 

The movie’s protagonist, Nina (Portman), is a sheltered young ballerina in New York who lives with her overly-protective mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer herself. As the movie opens, Nina is up for a the lead role in her Lincoln Center ballet company’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”

Nina lands the part but as she masters the dual roles of not only the virginal white Swan Queen but also that of her Black Swan evil twin, her confusion about her own identity mounts. Not helping Nina to maintain her sense of self is the autocratic but seductive head of the company (Vincent Cassel), a rival dancer (Mila Kunis) and a former prima ballerina (Winona Ryder, badly used), now on a downward spiral.

Nina increasingly suffers from vivid paranoid fantasies. Or are they just fantasies? Is that rash on her back really the result of abusive self-scratching or is she starting to sprout wings?

As the line between what’s real and what’s just going on in Nina’s head becomes increasingly fuzzy, the movie builds to a frenzied crescendo as overwrought as Tchaikovsky’s music. Throughout, Portman gives a complex and dedicated performance (she intensely studied ballet for ten months to prepare for the role) that completely captures the physical strength and yet mental fragility of her character.

Aronofsky fills “Black Swan” with doppelganger imagery and shots of Nina looking at and reflected back in mirrors. These obviously are meant to underline visually her growing psychological distortion and disintegration.

It’s seriously bravura filmmaking, full of swirling camera movements and carefully thought out symbolism, but the movie is also luridly lunatic, especially toward the end.

While fascinating and fun to watch, on reflection “Black Swan” becomes ever sillier. This is high art played, in the end and probably not intentionally, as high camp.