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At the climax of Boston choreographer José Mateo's Nutcracker, the Sugar Plum Fairy lowers her body backwards into the arm of her partner. Among the dozens of Nutcracker performances I saw when I worked at Mateo's company (in administration, not in tights), by far the most thrilling was the one where the Sugar Plum Fairy was played by an 18-year-old student who knew it was her one shot at the role. When the climactic moment came, instead of cautiously leaning back like the pros did, she threw herself back with abandon, nearly doubling over on the arm of the astonished prince.
So does Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan succeed: by unapologetically guzzling the thick Freudian stew that the screenplay (by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin, from a story by Heinz) serves up. The film, which opens today at the Uptown Theatre, takes every ballet cliché—the catty corps, the hard-driving and lustful silver-fox company director, the ballerina as simultaneously a little girl and a jaded adult—and whips them into a mezmerizing pageant that puts us inside the head of a rising prima ballerina as she tries to stay on her toes and in her right mind.
The ballet being mounted (in more ways than one) is Swan Lake, as it has to be—for this material, Debussy wouldn't cut it. Not since Shine have I seen a movie so enthusiastically mud-wrestle with lugubrious orchestral classics: Tchaikovsky thunders on the soundtrack as Aronofsky's camera stays tight in on the dancers' spinning heads and limpid limbs. Aronofsky's approach to ballet is like George Lucas's approach to space combat: even if you wouldn't hear those loud wooshes in real life, they sure make for some exciting cinema.
Natalie Portman's performance in the lead role of Nina Sayers marks a transition in her career: like Nina, Portman (now 29) is not an ingénue any more. Portman's always been best in wise-beyond-her-years roles, but now her years are starting to catch up with her wisdom, and she's perfect for this character, who's just reached that treacherously narrow window of time in which a dancer is at the height of her powers. Her foil is Mila Kunis, who acts well but hardly even needs to—her round face, seductive eyes, and full lips are a stark contrast to Portman's wan visage, and say almost everything that needs to be said about the characters' conflict.
Barbara Hershey's character as Portman's controlling mother is thankfully not overwritten, which gives Hershey the opportunity to convey her character's teetering sanity in quick, astonishing flashes rather than tiresome expository dialogue. As the genius choreographer who goes through muses like Jeremy Hanson goes through drumsticks, Vincent Cassell is a throwback to the Mad Men era of sexy conductors and choreographers, when you could imagine Leonard Bernstein plowing his way through half the string section during intermission and pulling his turtleneck back on without taking the smoldering cigarette out of his mouth.
There's every reason why the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy should be a snooze, and there's every reason why Black Swan shouldn't work. The story is a raft of clichés, and the unhinged-and-unreliable-POV trick is old hat (did that crazy shit really happen, or did she imagine it?). Psychological states are rendered literally in a manner that, in a lesser film, would be laughable. Black Swan succeeds brilliantly, though, because Aronofsky's conviction never wavers—the film stays en pointe, maintains a brisk pace and a crisp visual snap, and crucially never loses its focus on Nina's conflicted character. It's a wowzer.