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Natalie Portman dances on the dark side in 'Black Swan'

As the catchall diagnosis for women on the verge of an emotional meltdown, "hysteria" was a phenomenon of the 19th century. So was much of classical ballet. Therefore, using "hysterical" to describe Darren Aronofsky's temperamentally fraught and sure-to-be-controversial dance film, "Black Swan," seems apt enough. And the director doesn't disagree.

"But I think that's because ballet hasn't changed that much since the 19th century," the director said of his be-slippered melodrama, which stars Natalie Portman as a ballerina pirouetting along a tightrope between stardom and insanity. (The movie opens in Manhattan Friday and on Long Island on Dec. 17.) "The characters in that world are very, very similar to what we have. If you venture into in the ballet universe, you're going to run into similar archetypes."

The film, which also stars Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Vincent Cassel, is set amid the world of an unnamed New York City ballet company that looks a lot like the New York City Ballet and is about to open its season with a newly modernized/eroticized version of "Swan Lake." Like that 1977 soaper "The Turning Point," the temperaments involved in "Black Swan" are virtually en pointe - especially Portman's Nina, whose pursuit of perfection seems to give off sparks.

As in "The Red Shoes," perhaps the most iconic of all ballet films, obsession and compulsion are the twin engines of the drama. "I think I was trying to capture the tone of many ballets," Aronofsky added. "If you look into Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake' and see the ballet, that world doesn't stray that far from our movie."


Portman grows up

Whether his movie will catapult Portman, 29, to a new level of stardom is a question. Since her Lolita-esque screen debut at age 11 in Luc Besson's "The Professional" (1994), Portman has taken a succession of largely sexless roles (and didn't act much at all while attending Syosset High School, from which she graduated in 1999). Yes, she played a stripper in "Closer" (2004) and has usually taken on relatively mature characters, at least as compared to some of her contemporaries (not including Padmé in "Star Wars" I, I and III).

But she hasn't quite played a woman. Which intrigued Aronofsky, enough to cast the diminutive actress in a role that would ordinarily have called for someone a bit taller than 5-foot-3.

"Natalie's carriage, her shoulders and neck and head are very ballerina-like," Aronofsky argued. "And she has a tremendous amount of grace. But the thing I liked about Natalie so much is that because of her youthful energy, she's always been cast very young. And I kind of liked the idea - because the movie is very much about a girl turning into a woman - being the director to sort of use that. It would be very, very exciting and new for an audience to see her change into a woman, not just from role to role, but in the course of one performance."


Giving her co-star lip

The real-life parallel, as Portman transitions into more complex characterizations, is her character Nina's embrace of the Black Swan. The director of Nina's dance company, Thomas (Cassel), isn't convinced that the young dancer has the emotional depth - the sensuality - to capture the Black Swan's darkness. When he forces a kiss on the young dancer, and she responds by biting his lip, he agrees that maybe there's hope for the hopelessly virginal dancer.

Aronofsky's filmography - which includes "Pi," which won him the Sundance Film Festival's director's prize in 1998, and "Requiem for a Dream," which earned Ellen Burstyn an Oscar nomination in 2000 - has often involved parent-child conflict (Mickey Rourke's character in "The Wrestler," for instance, is estranged from his daughter). "Black Swan" is no different: The relationship between Nina and her mother (Hershey), an ex-dancer herself and a full-time control freak, is classical, pathological, unnerving . . . and convincing.

"I have a very good relationship with my parents, so it isn't autobiographical," Aronofsky laughed. "But I don't think you can do a ballet movie and escape the relationship between a mother and daughter, because so many dancers start when they're so young."

The director has wanted to make a ballet film for more than 10 years, and after "Pi," "Requiem," "The Fountain" and "The Wrestler" finally got his opportunity to make what some people, following his film's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival this year, were calling "The Black Shoes." This, in reference to the 1948 Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger classic, which starred Moira Shearer and remains, for many, a touchstone in their cinema and/or ballet lives. And which Aronofsky only recently saw himself.

"I actually didn't see 'The Red Shoes' until I was pretty far down the road with 'Black Swan,' " he confessed. "I had heard of it, of course, but I didn't track it down until the recent restoration," which was done by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation led by Martin Scorsese. "I said, 'I better watch it.' That's when I tracked it down. And I saw a lot of similarities with what we were going to do."



Natalie Portman shows her superbad side




For the past few weeks, Natalie Portman and college friend Laura Moses have been shopping to Hollywood studios a ribald comedy they wrote, said two studio executives who've read the script.

The project, called "BYO" (for Bring Your Own), concerns two very different 20-something women who, after finding themselves unlucky in love, decide to throw a party to which each female attendee brings an eligible bachelor. The executives who've read the script describe it as a female-themed "Superbad." Portman would star as one of the female leads and produce the movie, and the studio executives said they'd been told Anne Hathaway has expressed interest in the second lead role.

The project, which has been passed on by several Hollywood studios, could still get made via either a studio or, more likely, independent financing. Representatives for Hathaway and Portman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Portman, who has never previously written a movie, graduated from more button-down roles with her pole-dancing turn in 2004's "Closer." "Black Swan" sees her going back to that territory. In the film, she plays a repressed ballerina who lets her hair down in a much-touted scene involving Ecstasy, a rave and sex with Mila Kunis' character.

Now, apparently, she's adding a Judd Apatow notch to her belt, too.

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