BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Cast as the lead “Swan Lake,” ballerina Nina Sayers loses her mind as she captures the essence of the White Swan’s evil twin, the Black Swan.
PROS: Outstanding performances from Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey; beautifully shot; disturbingly surreal; real feel for the world of ballet; surprisingly controlled direction from Darren Aronofsky…
CONS: …despite some lapses into hackneyed territory; Mila Kunis not quite able to match the talents of her costars; an easier movie to respect than like.
Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s fifth feature film, sees him return to the territory of madness and obsession that drove his masterful first feature Pi and combine those themes with his observations on the desire for glory and fame that drove his most recent picture The Wrestler. The intersection proves a powerful and arresting vision, though days after I left the theater I’m still not certain that I liked it. This isn’t surprising; Aronofsky’s vision often settles on extreme, unflinching material; often his characters drive themselves to madness, self-destruction and death. Other than the David Fincher of Fight Club, I cannot think of a director whose vision is as uncompromising (in that light, I am very interested in seeing how he approaches next year’s X-Men movie The Wolverine) or as unbound by the sometimes rigid structures of genre.
This is not to say that Aronofsky is unfamiliar with genre territory. Pi, for all of its artistic flourishes, can easily be seen as a marriage of science fiction and horror. The Fountain, though not technically science fiction, used many of the genre’s images and conventions to tell a story of obsession, love and loss; watching it is like watching an adaptation one of the best Harlan Ellison stories that Ellison never wrote. Similarly, Black Swan, with its emphasis on sexuality, dark surrealism and the world of art, seems transliterated from an unwritten story not yet collected in a killer horror anthology edited by Ellen Datlow. Make no mistake: for all of its indie drama cred, Black Swan is a horror movie, though its horrors are the Second Stream ones explicated by Kathryn Cramer in her introductory essay of David Hartwell’s The Dark Descent. Psychological terror in the tradition of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or the works of Dennis Etchison rather than the overtly supernatural.
It begins with a dream. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) poses on a darkened stage but with a spotlight completely focused on her. As she dances a male performer joins her, and as their dance becomes more energized he begins to take on sinister, demonic qualities until he comes to resemble the frightening figure from Fantasia‘s “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence. Though arresting, the sequence and Nina’s subsequent detached assessment feel aloof, as if Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin attempt to build a wall between the movie and the viewer. It is one of the movie’s few missteps, though it may be intentional; from this point, the viewer cannot help but be drawn in.
A member of a New York City ballet company, Nina competes for the lead in their production of Swan Lake alongside newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis). Director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, in a delightfully smarmy performance) thinks Nina is perfect for the White Swan but believes she lacks the passion and sensuality of the Black Swan. When Nina approaches Leroy to ask for the role he kisses her, expressing surprise and exhilaration when she bites his lip and consequently casting her in the lead. As she practices, Leroy criticizes her dancing as the Black Swan as “frigid,” urging her to lose herself in the role and stop worrying about perfection.
An ironic demand, for Nina’s precarious sense of self is in danger of teetering into the abyss from the movie’s beginning. Much of her behavior displays evidence of psychosis: she scratches her shoulder raw, obsessively cuts her nails, and becomes paranoid when she learns that Leroy has cast Lily as her understudy, becoming convinced that Lily is trying to take the role away from her. And she begins to hallucinate: she begins seeing Lily as herself, at one point has an elaborate (and steamy) lesbian fantasy about her (answering the question of how you get men to see a movie about ballet), and in one incredible sequence pulls a black feather from the scratch in her shoulder and becomes the Black Swan, her eyes reddening and her legs twisting into the shape of a swan’s.
Aronofsky’s disturbing imagery easily could have slid into self-indulgence, but he benefits from screenwriters and actors who respect and understand the material. Natalie Portman, a beautiful young woman with incredible insight, disappears into her role as Nina, as does Barbara Hershey as her controlling, overbearing and demanding mother. Both women look drawn and tight, as if their countenances are ready to snap. Both roles demand much from them and both actresses deliver; I will be very surprised if Portman is not nominated for an Academy Award for best actress. In such company, Mila Kunis seems outmatched; though beautiful, she doesn’t have the ability of Portman, though she certainly gives what she can. The screenplay avoids the most obvious possible traps (having Lily become Nina’s doppelgänger, for example), though on occasion Aronofsky can’t help but let the movie dip into clichéd horror conventions. It’s a credit to his skill that these don’t harm the movie. His understanding of horror allows him some play with the genre’s tropes, but it’s clear very early in the movie that he isn’t interested in play.
And that’s where Black Swan might run into trouble with horror fans, to say nothing of the average moviegoer. Though there’s much to recommend it, Black Swan stands as an uncomfortable experience; its vision will be too uncompromising for some, too relentlessly grim for others. A lesser director, one steeped in genre tropes and slick professionalism, would have made a movie easy to like but hard to respect. Doppelgängers, sexual abuse and overt conflict would be far easier to identify but ultimately could be dismissed as silly. Aronofsky, more interested in art than craftsmanship, seems intent on doing the reverse: he wants you to respect what he does, not like it. It makes Black Swan hard to enjoy, but not easy to dismiss.