by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Darren Aronofsky, U.S., Fox Searchlight
If nothing else, Black Swan will certainly be the nuttiest movie to be mistaken for serious art in 2010, a true distinction as these last beleaguered twelve months of moviegoing saw contenders like Gaspar Noé’s harebrained Enter the Void and Andrei Konchalovsky’s utterly baffling The Nutcracker in 3D fall by the wayside. Darren Aronofsky has a leg up on his competitors: his horror movie about a good girl gone mad is set in the rarefied world of professional ballet (note the conspicuous exteriors of Lincoln Center, home to a film festival that, until The Wrestler, hadn’t been particularly accommodating to Aronofsky’s work), kibble for a gray-haired audience that likely passed over Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and (hee hee) The Fountain, but who help set the terms of the debate about what’s important or frivolous in our theaters and year-end awards shows. That crowd may well be stunned silent by what they find in here: this cracked fantasy is no The Red Shoes. Though perhaps they may share the reaction of the Philadelphia Film Festival audience I saw Black Swan with not long ago: waves of gut-busting laughter. Whether or not Aronofsky’s also laughing is an open question.
At the film’s outset, we’re thrust into a fairly typical, realistically lensed (the Dardenne-esque following camerawork of The Wrestler makes a welcome return) tale of backstage ballet drama as Nina (Portman), a longtime member of a New York troupe, is plucked from the group for her close-up. She is to play perhaps the most iconic of all roles in dance: the White Swan/Black Swan dual role of Swan Lake. Her icily perfect dancing makes her a natural for the White Swan, but questions of her readiness to tackle the dark voracious carnality of the Black Swan dog a psyche that seems clearly fragile and beleaguered from the outset. Her home life suggests some troubles in her upbringing: her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey, her face made up to look like a skeleton with folds of loose skin sagging off), a painter and former dancer who’s teetering on the stability fence herself, seems to have frozen her daughter in her mind’s eye at about age eleven and treats the girl accordingly. Nina’s bedroom is done up in princess-pink—stuffed toys and willowy curtains abound. When her troupe leader Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, fully sleazy, unsuccessfully mustachioed), asks his new star if she’s a virgin, her denial is less than convincing.
The narrative’s interest in Nina’s sexuality is as leering as Aronofsky’s camera in its filming of Portman’s near-emaciated frame. Leroy, who only gave Nina the part after being bitten while attempting to force himself on her (signs of a Black Swan in the making, he supposes), continually crosses the boundaries of workplace propriety, at one point suggesting the girl go home and “touch herself” as research. She does, throwing herself wholly into a solo bump and grind (all the creepos obsessed with Portman since her twelve-year-old debut in The Professional will certainly be out in force for this one) that ends with a hilarious shock cut to her ghoulish mother asleep in a chair in the corner of the room—it’s a scene that somehow simultaneously evokes Apatowian bro-humor and early De Palma lo-fi scares. (This sequence also sadly explicates the depth of the film’s psychology.) Her troubled relationship with her own body extends beyond frosted-over sexuality: Nina’s constantly rushing to bathrooms to exacerbate various rashes, or peel her cuticles up to her wrist, only to blink and find the horrific wounds vanished.
Once Nina (Portman has finally been cast in the role her perfect beauty and limited range has been waiting for) has won the role, her mental state decays rapidly. You’ll lose count of how many times Leroy breaks rehearsal to campily holler some variation on, “I know you can dance the white swan, Nina, but can you dance zee black swan?” at the besieged girl, reiterating the film’s only real theme. In case we weren’t quite following, the addition of the looser, more sexual Lily (Mila Kunis, literally tattooed with black swan wings on her back—doh!) to the troupe, and Leroy’s nearly immediate elevation of her to be Nina’s understudy, helps push the girl to the brink, as she’s unable to decide if she wants to fight or fuck her doppelgänger and competitor. A fragile talented young woman stunted into self-loathing and paranoid narcissistic hallucination by an overprotective, nutso mother; girls who, when they aren’t cat-fighting or self-mutilating, engage in one-off lesbo action (the end result of Lily and Nina’s drug and alcohol-infused night on the town, though Aronofsky pulls his punches, suggesting their liaison might all have been in Nina’s head); and literal stabs at masturbation—these all sound like the obvious side effects of several forty-year-old men banding together to write a screenplay about the female psyche.
It is unsurprising that a filmmaker whose sole career constant has been an obsession with body mutilation would take to a story about a dancer—after all, the prop holding up the smooth, collected facade of the ballet is a pair of bloody, bruised feet. Aronofsky may not be a particularly deep thinker, but he certainly nails the visceral in his films—in Black Swan small details like insert shots of those battered feet, or the fact that almost every character who isn’t a young ballerina is given the look and feel of a corpse (even Winona Ryder pops in wraithlike as a just-past-her-prime star ballerina sent out to pasture against her will; a neat bit of symbolic casting, even if her awkward performance is too laugh-inducing) play out like visual leitmotifs, unsubtly evoking both the musical structure of ballet scores and the physical brutality and ageism of the art. Yet remember, this is little more than a callow psychosexual drama; it’s clear by Swan’s midpoint that, aside from a few beats about the corporeality of the form, Aronofsky’s not interested in dance at all. The film may open with an elaborate rush of choreographed action, but his camera is too close, too enmeshed with the dancers to actually see the dancing happen. We feel it, either in the fashion of motion sickness or as an exuberant rush, depending on one’s tolerance for fast, vertiginous shallow-focus camera movements, but, throughout the film, full-body images of actual dance flit by quickly, perhaps a result of having to cut around a non-dancer in the lead role.
A perfection-obsessed artist driven to hallucinations and madness—sounds not unlike the manner in which an artist as clearly self-conscious as Aronofsky might view himself. After the beating his mystical, mystifying The Fountain took at the hands of the rightfully confused, Aronofsky retreated into his wrestler, whose broken down piece of meat facade masked a misunderstood artiste (and perhaps lesser messiah) plying a highly physical, demanding trade that the public just didn’t appreciate enough. In the wake of that “comeback,” is Aronofsky’s eager gate-crashing of ballet’s ivory tower a film-length middle finger to the naysayers who have nipped at his films since he was lauded at Sundance over a decade ago? Watching this kind of cracked self-regard play out over a career is fascinating (how one filmmaker can locate parts of his psyche behind the massive, ragged features of Mickey Rourke and the haughty cheekbones of Natalie Portman is worth puzzling over), especially in light of Swan’s ending, in which [SPOILER ALERT] Portman literally sprouts wings to fly through what becomes her sensational debut performance and swan song. Some may feel Aronofsky’s arrived at some new place, but Black Swan’s flights of absurdity, skin-deep psychology, and gross-out imagery don’t feel a far cry from Pi or Requiem for a Dream. These elements are perhaps more extreme here, more emboldened (who wouldn’t be when underscored by nonstop Tchaikovsky music?), yet they still represent a step back into something more familiarly fantastical following a credible world-weary detour into the bowels of low-rent New Jersey wrestling.
The original production of Swan Lake was considered by many at the time to be a failure, if not an out and out disaster, yet we all know the end of that story. Aronofsky’s Black Swan seems headed towards a more immediately enthusiastic reception. To its perhaps dubious credit, there are few other films that as successfully morph themselves into camp objects while unspooling through the projector. It’s almost irredeemably dumb, borderline offensive in its psychology and sexual politics, but it’s also a surprisingly easy, even fun, watch, even as it presses the limits of taste and incredulity. Perhaps this is because its creator, a talented image-maker who seems always to have much to prove, presses on those boundaries so hard, and so ridiculously—by the time Nina’s legs distend, crack and bend backwards into an avian form late in the film, you’ll have long past decided if you’re on board with his skewed vision. Something happens onscreen during Black Swan, and the mere fact of this just might leave you oddly exhilarated and triumphant. For what it’s worth, this is clearly the exact film Aronofsky wanted to make—how often in theaters these days do we get to experience that?