Somewhere in the vaults of my family's old home movies, there's a reel - yes, that long ago - of the ballet recital that climaxed the after-school classes my mother and grandmother made me go to for a single year. I remember the recital, with myself togged up as one of the white swans - white fluff, white satin, silver trim - running in and out of the circles of other girls. I looked as miserable as I surely was. After that, they let me stop.
Quite a few of the audience at Manlius Art Cinema's opening night screening of Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" looked like they were young dancers themselves. They had the same slenderness and carriage that Natalie Portman (as Nina Sayers) and Mila Kunis (as her rival, Lilly), even though both already had years of formal dance training, spent months of full-time training and dieting to achieve before shooting began. Two of them sat just behind me and throughout the film one or the other would periodically gasp or exclaim at the proceedings on-screen. As we left after the credits, we shared that universally understood combination of sound and gesture - part eye-roll, part shrug and part dramatic exhalation - that made adding the words "I'm exhausted!" unnecessary. Out in the lobby, somebody did say that.
Absorbing, by turn hallucinatory, appalling, gorgeous and deeply sad, and billed somewhat bizarrely as a "dance thriller" in the shorthand of ad-speak, "Black Swan" contains few lulls and several very fine performances. Besides the principal leads, Vincent Cassell is the controlling, Balanchine-like dance master, Barbara Hershey is Nina's creepy mother and, somewhere beneath raccoon eyes and a fright wig, an unrecognizable Winona Ryder- who is that? I kept wondering every time this woman appeared - is the waning prima ballerina abruptly and publicly "retired" to make room for younger Nina Sayers to dance the double lead in "Swan Lake," who goes round the bend.