Toronto's Babes in Wings

Who would have thought that women sporting wings would be an inadvertent theme of the 35th Toronto Film Festival? In Black Swan by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) they're figuratively worn by Natalie Portman as Nina, a driven ballerina who would literally die to nail the lead in Swan Lake.

In Passion Play by Mitch Glazer they're, well, real goddamn wings, humongous ones, sprouting from the lats of Megan Fox as the Bird Woman in a traveling circus. They fold up on her back at night, making you wonder what hygiene they might require. Flea powder? How did I find myself at this movie? A herd creature like most people, I simply flowed with the eager crowd into the packed theater. Twenty minutes in, much of the crowd flowed right back out. Even though craggy 'ole Mickey Rourke was on hand to make out with Bird Woman. Perhaps my colleagues were as creeped out as I by the sight of a hottie in high heels and palpitating, anatomically correct wings! As for Fox's acting, it's hard to characterize what she does up there on the screen. Maybe just revel in her own gorgeousness.

Aronofsky's Black Swan inhabits an entirely different planet. An audacious rethink of the themes implicit in Swan Lake, it uncovers the rivalries and ambitions roiling a New York City ballet company, setting the story against the famous Tchaikovsky score to often thrilling effect. In evoking the paranoia and scheming of the ballet world, the film tilts towards the horror genre. Some find it over the top, even, at times, laughable. Me, I was seduced by Black Swan's dark glamor.

Natalie Portman's virginal, mentally fragile Nina lives sequestered with a ferocious "ballet mama" (Barbara Hershey) who projects her own failed dreams of stardom onto her daughter. Nina's single goal is to snag the lead in Swan Lake, playing the ballet's two swan queens -- one white and pure, the other dark and wicked. But ballet master Vincent Cassel (a hornier Balanchine) notes that her lack of sensuality and mania for perfection hobble her take on the wicked swan, which should sizzle. In an effort to access her inner black swan, Nina tentatively responds to the caresses of Cassel, and more ardently, to the real or imagined advances of sensual, high-living ballerina (Mila Kunis). But ambition in this fable leads to madness and destruction in a darker, more erotic reprise of The Red Shoes.

To prepare for the role of Nina, Natalie Portman (already tagged as Oscar bait) reportedly studied ballet for ten months. As a former dancer myself, I can tell you that no actress can create in ten months the body and movement style that dancers develop over ten years. DP Matthew Libatique's camera work cleverly cuts away whenever Nina has to actually dance, rather than just undulate her arms and make like a swan. But even there Portman is barely convincing. The great Bolshoi ballerinas have majestic upper body carriage and hyper-extended arms that few non dancers can simulate. As if sensing this, Aronofsky keeps Nina's upper body hidden in little wool shrugs. I'm told by my colleagues that only balletomanes will spot the problem. More critically, Portman's limited range as an actress confine her to an expression of pained anxiety.

Vincent Cassel, himself a former dancer, is far more commanding as a creature of the rehearsal hall, owning every scene in which he appears. As Nina's mom, Barbara Hershey not only goes over the top -- her surgicalized face contributes - intentionally? - to the film's ambiance of horror. Overall, Aronofsky has nailed astonishingly well the ballet world's isolation from the larger community, fierce ambitions, and physical demands bordering on masochism. (As a dancer, he was continually in pain, Peter Martins once told me.) Tchaikovsky's lyrical, soaring score is of a piece with the film's otherworldly allure of a fairy tale set in New York's Lincoln Center. Coming December first, Black Swan is poised to become a cross over hit.