Black Swan; R, 110 minutes; Vinegar Hill Theatre

A New York City ballerina gets the lead in Swan Lake. It’s what she, or maybe her mother, has always wanted. What she’s been waiting for, working for. It will be a challenge. It has to be perfect.
Black Swan (starring Natalie Portman) premiered locally at the Virginia Film Festival in early November, but returns in wide release to Vinegar Hill Theatre this week.

The lead is a dual role, and the ballerina’s lecherous director (Vincent Cassel) worries that she’s only good for half of it. So he keeps giving her variations on the same note: “Forget about control, Nina. I want to see passion!” Or: “Let go!” Upon returning to the tiny pink chamber of her stunted-childhood bedroom, deep within the wicker-and-empty-bird-cage-intensive cloister of mother’s apartment, her first homework assignment is to masturbate. Obviously, madness awaits.

That’s why everybody’s calling Black Swan a “psychosexual thriller.” It’s big on going insane and grabbing crotches. It has three writers—Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin—but credit for the impression it makes rightly goes to director Darren Aronofsky. The main thing—the only thing—is the forcefulness of the presentation, with a central character that’s as ruthlessly pared down to her slightly grotesque essence as is the actor portraying her. It’s the apotheosis of Natalie Portman, her beauty pulled so taut that the vanity of being desparate for approval can be seen poking through from underneath. In the best, most unsettling moment, she calls home from a bathroom stall, her face streaming tears and twisted up in a cathartic rictus: “He picked me, Mommy!”

There are other dancers with other qualities: confidante/rival Mila Kunis, displaced predecessor Winona Ryder, and severe stage-mom Barbara Hershey. Like Portman, they’re all pros, undaunted by the increasingly overwhelming aura of reductive misogyny. And there’s Vincent Cassel as the aforementioned lecherous director and willing deliverer of obvious, tedious dialogue. Strange that Black Swan thinks it needs so much explanatory talk, given all the overblown emoting and swirling camera moves, which are what it’s really about anyway.

Or maybe not strange, given Aronofsky’s tin ear. Certainly he appreciates Tchaikovsky as a source of morbid, melancholic and sometimes funny gag cues, and maybe even as a composer of movie-friendly music that bears some melodic similarities to John Williams’ score for Star Wars. Similarly, Aronofsky appreciates dance as a vessel for physicalizing tormented inner states, even if otherwise seeming at a loss about how to show bodies in motion unless a special effect is involved. He does, however, have a knack for luring brittle, ropy women into masochistic lesbian-tending situations (see also Requiem for a Dream), and for ending movies with a public, possibly fatal final leap (see also The Wrestler).

O.K., great. Next, could we forget about passion and maybe see some control?