“Black Swan,” director Darren Aronofsky’s latest ode to corporeal instability, oozes grime and sleaze out of each of its art-house baiting pores, and it’s fantastic. Natalie Portman (in a performance that is as campy as it is magnificent) plays Nina, a soloist in a fictional New York City ballet company competing for the lead role in the season opening performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Company director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has announced that he wants this rendition of the well-worn classic to be fresh and real, and in service of that goal he puts prima ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder), out to pasture in favor of a fresh face. It is no surprise that he selects Nina, though not without a fair amount of competition from her female peers, who are all as tightly wound as the feature-distorting ponytails pulling their hair back. The stiffest competition comes from the company’s newest addition, the free-spirited Californian, Lily (Mila Kunis). She, Thomas tells Nina, is unafraid of letting herself go and surrendering to her body. It is a trait that the overly disciplined Nina doesn’t poses and it hinders her ability to fully become the darkly libidinous (and titular) Black Swan. Thomas’ advice to Nina for luring that Black Swan out of herself is to surrender to her repressed sexuality. When she does surrender to impulses, (sexual and otherwise) all bets are off. Doppelgängers lurk around every corner, skin peels off of Portman’s fingers to the audiences’ grimacing horror, only to be replaced in the next shot like the melting face in “Poltergeist.” Aronofsky telegraphs these moments of psychological confusion with eerie sound effects and spooky music cues that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Dario Argento film.
Aronofsky’s film is as much of that pulpy milieu as it is of the art house aesthetic that shows up in the handheld shots that bob along behind Nina’s head. It is a near point-of-view shot that is as irritating as it is ubiquitous. But getting the audience into Nina’s head is his primary concern, and putting a camera behind Portman’s head is just one of several tricks he employs to achieve this end. The sound is carefully designed so we hear every crack, pop, and crunch when she adjusts her damaged toes. We’re in the next stall every time her finger is stuck down her throat. Unfortunately, Aronofsky largely fails when he tries to pull the rug out from under his audience, but it’s less because of a lack of empathy for Nina’s situation and more because Aronofsky can’t quite achieve an adequate level of psycho-dramatic confusion. His shots and visual effects are too tied to a specific reading that they can become truly chaotic and confusing. On a purely visual level, he takes a lot of time to emphasize Nina’s point of view only to force the most obvious reading possible: the quest for an unattainable, artistic perfection drives one to the brink of insanity.
What makes the film so enjoyable and so readily able to overcome its short-comings are the multiple readings that float underneath its tortured artist gloss. A tale of women self-mutilating in order to achieve the perfect self haunts the film, as does a story about a girl’s maturation into being a woman. It is this second reading that I find most compelling. Nina is infantilized by an overbearing mother (played by the marvelous Barbara Hershey), which leads to sexual repression and sexual confusion. Once she is encouraged to explore her sexuality there is confusion, the rejection of the mother, idealization of a masculine figure (Nina informs her mother of the role in, “Swan Lake” by saying, “he picked me,” as if she were still in middle school), the schizophrenic feelings that come with maturation and finally, well, I don’t want to give anything away.
Such intellectualization, while not without merit, distracts from the roller coaster ride that, “Black Swan” goes on. It is, by turns, horrifying, comical, self-serious and half-baked. Little odes to the other death-shrouded ballet film, Powell and Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes,” pop up here and there along with nods to “Carrie” and “Raging Bull.” But Aronofsky’s primary precursors are his own, self-destruction obsessed films. The stories of Nina and “The Wrestler”s Randy the Ram run oddly parallel courses. But where his past films were about the depiction of self-destruction and self-mutilation (remember seeing Mickey Rourke get hit with a barb wire-wrapped two-by-four?), “Black Swan” is mostly about depicting the physical and psychological results. Aronofsky doesn’t care to show us Natalie Portman dancing herself into a nervous breakdown; in fact the dancing sequences aren’t about dancing but instead about camera movement. There is more dancing in the chopped up spectacle of Baz Luhrmann than there is here. No, it’s about results. It’s about what happens after the psyche becomes as emaciated as the body.
Those results are only occasionally interesting and never surprising. The heavy-handed dialogue and even heavier reliance on cliché by Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz and John McLaughlin is also about exploitation. Exploitation of the actors (especially Portman, who looks, alternately, truly vanquished and predatory), exploitation of the film’s own foundational clichés (suffocating mother, struggle for perfection, martyr for art), exploitation of visual tropes (mirrors as a motif for duality), exploitation of characters (Aronofsky seems to revel in the mangled hands, warped feet, bubbling skin, and puncture wounds that various characters sustain over the film’s hour and fifty minute running time), and exploitation of the audience. The entire film was comfortably uncomfortable, which might have prevented it from having some of the true jolt that it was capable of, but I recommend taking the time to watch it, if for no other reason than to see what all the fuss is about. It is goofily ostentatious and its sleazy rendition of art house cinema is worth seeing once, but once is probably enough for me.