PLOT: An obsessed ballerina practices her way toward madness; 3.5 stars; Rated R.
BOTTOM LINE: Creepy, freaky fun
CAST: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey
DIRECTOR: Darren Aronofsky
WHEN/WHERE: Find showtimes and tickets for "Black Swan"
Practice makes perfectly insane in "Black Swan," a tale of one ballerina's psychosexual freakout. It's thoroughly bizarre, pitched at high C and, as you might expect from a movie about a crazy person in a tutu, frequently hilarious. Thanks to director Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler"), it's also audacious and inventive, a rare example of a film that wants to explore what films can do.
Possibly the only movie to make Lincoln Center look like Dracula's Castle, "Black Swan" focuses on Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a technically dazzling but emotionally stunted ballerina. Her director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), has cast her in the demanding dual role of the virginal White Swan and the predatory Black Swan in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake."
But he has some reservations: "I never see you lose yourself," Thomas says, which is director-ese for "you need to sleep with me." Still, he makes a valid point: The sexually inexperienced Nina is more girl than woman.
She's also surrounded by women, from her infantilizing mother (Barbara Hershey) to her bombshell rival (Mila Kunis). Gradually, Nina's unstable world comes apart. Bloody cracks appear in her body, and her face shows up on other people's heads. Aronofsky's symbolism isn't exactly subtle (look for lots of mirrors and swans), but he squeezes maximum shivers out of near-subliminal imagery and sound. Some of the film's most wicked frights last only a split second.
Nina's main hang-up - and perhaps the filmmakers' as well - is her virginity. Like Catherine Deneuve's sheltered little murderer in Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965), Portman's bottled-up ballerina is in the throes of what doctors once called female hysteria. By the time this fever-dream of a movie breaks, you might know the feeling.