Black Swan

I have to admit, I only had a vague idea of the plot of Swan Lake before this. You don't need to know it before you go, though; they explain it in the film rather a lot. For instance, Natalie Portman as ballerina Nina Sayers -- and yeah, the Nina Ballerina thing is unfortunate -- explains the ballet to a random guy she just met who's clearly too busy trying to figure out how he can get into her pants to bother listening.

To be fair, a lot of the characters are apparently trying to get into Nina's pants. The ballet's director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, Ocean's Thirteen), may or may not be trying to seduce her. New arrival Lily (Mila Kunis, The Book of Eli) might be trying to seduce her, or she might just be a ruthless backstabber who will do anything to take over from Nina as the Swan Queen. Winona Ryder (Star Trek) as former prima ballerina Beth might be after revenge on Nina, or maybe Leroy, or maybe is too busy self-destructing to do anything to anybody else. And Nina's mom Erica (Barbara Hershey), might be an overbearing stage mother of the worst sort who still treats her daughter like she's ten, or -- well, no, she's just an overbearing stage mother of the worst sort. No uncertainty there.

The thing about Swan Lake is that one ballerina dances two parts. Originally, the two parts are Odette, a young woman under a curse who is a swan during the day and human only at night; and Odile, daughter of the evil sorcerer who cursed Odette. Don't worry about the names; here they're just the White Swan and the Black Swan -- and the implication is that they're actually the same character, not two different ones. Nina, as Leroy keeps saying, is the perfect White Swan, but she's going to have to learn to loosen up if she wants to be a convincing Black Swan.

This is possibly exactly the wrong thing to say to a sheltered young woman who's never really done anything but dance and live in the shadow of an overbearing stage mother of the worst sort, especially when she's also all stressed out over her first starring role. Whatever else Lily might be, she's definitely a wild child, and seems set on getting Nina to misbehave. And as the saying goes, you have to watch out for those quiet ones. When Nina starts to cut loose, don't get in her way.

Because the thing about Nina is that she might be having a nervous breakdown -- or possibly a psychotic break -- because she keeps trying to be perfect. Good job, mom. Before you know it, everything's spiraling out of control, and Nina is no longer the sweet girl she once was. And it's harder and harder to tell what's really happening and what's just another part of her increasingly wild imaginings. It's creepy and actually really cool.

Four and a half out of five. Like ballet itself, it may not be for everyone -- opinion among my fellow moviegoers seemed divided. The guy a few seats down was obviously annoyed by the ending and stayed all through the credits, apparently in hopes of getting a clip at the end that would explain everything. (It isn't there; he had to leave with that one last, nagging question unanswered, but I didn't mind that myself, since I was pretty sure I knew the answer.) I'd also like to announce the 2010 winner for Best Comment Overheard While Leaving the Theatre. A guy and a girl were discussing the scene where the two ballerinas get pretty hot and heavy. She remarked that possibly some people might find the scene "too much"; his reply was, "Speaking as a dude, that fulfilled all my moviegoing needs." That was so funny, I didn't even cringe at the D word.

Natalie Portman and Natalie Portman have a staring contest.


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