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Critical Mass: 'Black Swan'

December 3, 2010 |  5:27 pm

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Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" isn't your typical ballet movie. It's got as many jump scares as a horror flick, lots of blood and yes, dirty, explicit sex with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. It's bold and extreme and in order to convey the experience, critics are combing back through their film memories to paint a picture of comparison and provide enough comparable films to fill a Netflix queue.

The Times' Kenneth Turan sounds like he would rather be at home watching "Great Performances" (or cleaning his septic tank) than enduring Aronofsky's intense take on the arts. He writes, "When you experience ballet the Aronofsky way, you count yourself lucky that the dancers don't have easy access to staple guns." And no, that's not a compliment.

Perhaps because the movie turned him off so intensely, Turan's mind seems to have wandered off to other films he liked better. In the course of his review he brings up "The Red Shoes" and describes Portman and Kunis' sex scene as "soft-core antics that will remind those with long memories of Radley Metzger's mostly forgotten 'Therese and Isabelle' and 'Camille 2000.'"

"The Red Shoes" is a popular point of comparison for many reviewers, including over at the New York Observer, where the frequently cranky Rex Reed accuses "Black Swan" of "borrowing every ballet-movie cliché from 'The Red Shoes' and 'Spectre of the Rose,' among others." But mostly he sees Polanski in this thriller he dismisses as "nothing more than a lavishly staged 'Repulsion' in toe shoes."

Not all the major critics are this harsh. In fact, a majority were quite taken with "Black Swan." But like some kind of phantasmagoric ink blot, each critic sees the film as coming from a slightly different lineage. Philadelphia Inquirer critic Steven Rea, who calls it "beautifully crazy," was put in mind of the "long tradition of backstage melodramas: '42nd Street,' 'A Star Is Born,' 'All About Eve' and, yes, that kitschy '90s relic, 'Showgirls.' "

Time magazine's Richard Corliss' review was measured -- he admires the film for Aronofsky's craft and Portman's performance, but as an artistic statement, he's less impressed. However, he does find time to compare it to "the late-'40s backstage dramas 'A Double Life' (Ronald Colman plays Othello, becomes fatally jealous of his actress ex-wife) and the classic ballet melodrama 'The Red Shoes.'"

Boston Globe reviewer Wesley Morris sees great importance in the mother-daughter relationship as portrayed by Barbara Hershey and Portman, which he compares to "Carrie," "The Piano Teacher," "Precious" and Disney’s "Tangled." Of the rest of the film, Morris says, "This isn’t terribly deep — most of the thrill is gone by a second viewing — and you can often feel Aronofsky’s exertion. But the movie looms in the memory."

Unlike her male counterparts, the New York Times' Manohla Dargis views Portman and Kunis' hot-and-heavy lovemaking and recalls a different kind of red shoe: "it’s also likely that Mr. Aronofsky, who was born in 1969 and grew up in Brooklyn, frequented Times Square when it was known as the deuce and lined with movie palaces playing the best and worst in trash cinema. I bet he also caught a few episodes of the 'Red Shoe Diaries' on cable." But she quickly follows up: "That isn't a knock."

-- Patrick Kevin Day

 Photo: Natalie Portman in "Black Swan" / Fox Searchlight