The women of “Black Swan” make their appearances on the stage like Kabuki dolls. The star, Natalie Portman (“V For Vendetta”). The matriarch, Barbara Hershey (“Hannah and Her Sisters”). The has-been, Winona Ryder (“Girl, Interrupted”). The ingénue, Mila Kunis (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”). Virgin, whore, bitch, Madonna — one by one they bend their arms into the spotlight, a parade of cake, lipstick, feathers and blood.

“Black Swan”

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20th Century Fox

With a wafer of a body and a tiny baby voice, Nina (Portman) is awakened from her gauzy reverie by a ripe, pink grapefruit and her mother’s (Hershey) shining teeth. “He promised to feature me more this season,” Nina murmurs. She, like all the other aspiring luminaries of the New York City Ballet, hungers for the lead role in the company’s upcoming production of “Swan Lake.” Well, be careful what you wish for, little Nina, because you just might get it. Soon after the pronouncement of her promotion to prima ballerina, Nina begins a frenzied transformation from alabaster lily to Swan Queen with her life literally in the balance — a turn recalling the backstabbing salaciousness of “All About Eve” and the melancholy grace of “The Red Shoes.”

Tchaikovsky’s original grand valse before the Ballet Russes was a tale of tragic love and death — miserable Odette yearning for the attentions of the hapless Prince Siegfried. “Black Swan” is its complete perversion. Director Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”) isn’t interested in the honeyed, transfiguring quality of love. No, he’s interested in the mechanics — the physical, mental and psychological trauma behind it all.

From its first woozy, tightrope step, “Black Swan” is thrown into an exploration of binaries. Girl and woman, light and dark, doppelgangers, white swan and black swan. When Nina struggles to embrace her darker role in the ballet, something inside of her fights against it — scratch marks appearing on her porcelain skin, feathers bursting out from all directions — an internal battle for dominance between the two poles. And so Nina’s transformation into the black swan isn’t merely a performance spectacle — it is her coming-of-age party, her transformation from blushing child to self-destructive woman.

Where the binaries really start to get interesting is when they begin to manifest themselves in the film’s characters. The position of the white swan is guarded jealously by Nina’s mother. Armed with a tube of pink frosting and an ominous pair of nail clippers, there’s something very Freudian, almost carnal about the virginal preservation with which she tries to smother her daughter. On the other side of the spectrum is Beth (Ryder), a black mascara-smeared nightmare who’s denied the grace of exploding across the stars after she throws herself in front of a car, Anna Karenina-style, and becomes a ragged cripple.

Theoretically, then, Aronofsky has created the flawless masterpiece he set out to create. Yet for all of its adherence to form and feminine signifiers and duality, “Black Swan” doesn’t seem to mean anything important. Almost every work, whether high or low, has a message, and its success is largely dependent on whether the audience is receptive to it.

“Requiem for a Dream” worked because we walked out the theater vowing never to do drugs again. “The Wrestler” worked because we felt our hearts shudder every time we watched the battered, bruised Randy the Ram catapult into another punch. But if the only thing we can come up with after a screening of “Black Swan” is, “Man, Natalie Portman really freaked me out,” does this mean that the film failed to achieve its message? Or does it mean that it never had a message to begin with? In reality, watching “Black Swan” is nothing more than an experience — a blistering, fevered, erratic one; It has no lasting power, no higher concept reigning over the slow, winding fouettés and reflective surfaces.

The strangest thing of all is, this epiphany carries little weight. The experience of watching Nina’s formidable slide into mania is equivalent to a long, slow intake of breath, and all we yearn for is that jittery aria of a climax. When it finally comes — a cadenza of beating wings and pooled blood, where gilded flesh merges with bone and sinew — the moment nonetheless burns fabulously. Even if “Black Swan” really is all style and no substance, the style is so bruisingly embedded into the film that whatever the substance lacks hardly matters.

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