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What's the fuss about 'Black Swan?'

The biggest head-scratcher among year-end movie phenomena has got to be the critical enthusiasm for "Black Swan."

It's laughably obvious as a horror film, hideously misshapen as a dance film, and intolerably masochistic as a character study of a one-note character -- Natalie Portman's good-girl ballerina (right), who must tap into her dark side in order to play both the white swan and the black swan in "Swan Lake" at Lincoln Center.

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I saw it on Christmas Day with a packed house. It elicited no palpable response except an occasional titter.

The minute you see that the heroine sleeps in a bedroom fit for an eight-year-old, you just wait for the moment when she jams all her stuffed animals down the garbage chute.

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Portman is valiant -- she convinces you that she's a superb dancer -- but, off her toes, she can't do much of anything here except act urgently confused, especially around her slimy-genius choreographer (Vincent Cassel) and her bitter, controlling mother (Barbara Hershey).

Mila Kunis is just as monochromatic but a lot more fun as a blithe spirit (from San Francisco, naturally!) who joins the company and immediately impresses everyone with her free, effortless style. You cease believing in the plot when the choreographer doesn't just switch casting and toss the role to the Girl Who Knows How from the City That Knows How.

Director Darren Aronofsky uses off-kilter angles and prowling cameras to capture details you don't often see in ballet movies -- like the way the muscles of the back work when the dancers are extending their arms -- but he never gives you the pleasure of seeing a portion of "Swan Lake" in all its full-bodied, lyric glory.

He's enslaved to his pseudo-profound vision of an artist's need to immolate himself or herself in the search for perfection. What's worse about the movie, though, is the way it tortures its heroine and then serves her up to the audience as the embodiment of a higher purity -- the self-sacrificing female who gives herself (in this case) to her art.

She's more like a sacrificial lamb slaughtered on the altar of a film director's ego.

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