Black Swan ★★★★½

Been putting this one off for years. I confess to a certain intellectual laziness in this regard. Natalie Portman has been poisoned in my mind from the Star Wars prequels and V for Vendetta, a film more insulting to its source material than Jar-Jar Binks could have ever been. And I've been annoyed with Darren Aronofsky since The Fountain, a feeling which wasn't alleviated any by Mother. I skipped it when it came out and I hadn't been tempted to go back and fix that. I suppose I owe an apology to these two people whom I'll never meet.

Annihilation was an opportunity to watch Natalie Portman in a good film. Proof of concept for me that it's possible to watch one of her movies without cringing. What's funny about Black Swan is that Portman is fantastic in it, but you can't really tell you're watching a notable performance until the very end, when she dances as the Black Swan. The way her face changes so radically from the rest of the film, to express wanton, murderous energy, was pretty impressive. It bespeaks a level of understanding and control over one's faculties that the good actors have. Those last few scenes in which Portman reaches the heights of self-destruction are suitable payoff for the loathsome mental weakness that marks the rest of the film, a portrayal that is also the product of good acting by Portman but less fun to watch.

Aronofsky, for his part, has his more self-defeating impulses checked here (for an example of what he looks like when he's fully up his own ass, the aforementioned Mother does nicely). Not being on the set, I can't say for sure, but I suspect that Aronofsky being out of his element in the world of dance forced him to rely more on people like the numerous ballet consultants and costume designers and so forth. This strikes me as much more of a group effort than his other films, and so maybe he's a little less likely to fly off the handle. The baser impulses toward CGI are restrained here, and stay in their lane to mostly serve the story rather than going overboard. And Matthew Libatique brings his standard A game to a challenging shoot in which the camera has to closely follow dancers all over the place. I've long stopped waiting for Aronofsky to mellow out, but maybe there's hope when he's in a situation like this and is directing in a more committee-oriented process.

The story isn't all that moving to me. There's some nonsense about art and self-destruction that thankfully doesn't dominate the narrative, much as Aronofsky may have wished it to. Some casting is good (Vincent Cassel), some not so good (Mila Kunis, and ask yourself if a film has ever been improved by her presence). Barbara Hershey continues in the Aronofsky tradition of middle-aged actress as pseudo horror prop, a thing I've never liked. That chaff doesn't really matter, though. This is fine as a chance for Natalie Portman to do her thing and for Darren Aronofsky to be the fantastic technical director that he is without other stuff getting too much in the way.