It’s important for me to inform you of the following facts about Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010): it is by no means a profound work of cinematic art; it has little chance of winning the Best Picture Academy Award, nor is Natalie Portman a likely winner for Best Actress; Vincent Cassel may win for Supporting Actor, if nominated, but I wouldn’t bet on it; Aronofsky’s direction is capable, the script is serviceable but flawed, and the art direction, design work and editing are effective but not noteworthy. Please, please rid yourselves of the hifalutin’ expectations that the 20th Century Fox / Searchlight marketing department has foisted upon you over the last three months.
Because if you’re able to do that, then you’ll see ‘Black Swan’ for what it really is – a big, fun, dumb, perfectly enjoyable psychological horror flick, and a good time at the movies.
Portman plays young ballerina Nina Sayers, who has been slaving away as an aspiring ballet dancer since childhood. We assume this because she lives with her hovering Mommy (Barbara Hershey), and we learn that Mommy gave up her career to have Nina, and is imperiously and intrusively projecting her own failed aspirations onto her daughter. Unfortunately, we simply have to stipulate stuff like this, because there’s absolutely no screen or story time given to who Nina’s father might have been, what her childhood may have been like, or how she ended up in the corps de ballet at a prestigious Lincoln Center ballet company.
Nina is to be the lead dancer in a new and exciting staging of ‘Swan Lake.’ The balletmaster, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), isn’t convinced that she has the Dionysian passion to convincingly play the Black Swan, even though she has the Apollonian technical skills and pure-as-the-driven-snow demeanor to absolutely nail the alter-ego, the White Swan. (Both roles are traditionally danced by the same dancer). But Leroy sees cracks in Nina’s psychological armor, and is convinced that, one way or another, he can elicit the desired carnal edge from her that the role requires.
Leroy’s increasingly intimate tutelage, Mommy’s passive-aggressive browbeating, and withering competitive intrigue from her fellow ballerinas (most notably from Lily (Mila Kunis), the Black-Swan-iest of her rivals), set Nina into a slow spiral of hallucinatory delusion and perfectionist self-punishment. These sequences are the most successful; darkly amusing and consistently scary, these predominant aspects of the film are, favorably, in the same league as earlier David Cronenberg (one’s own body as one’s own worst enemy), Sam Raimi (exaggerated boogedy-boogedy close-ups and jarring expressionist sound effects – and those can be good things), Brian DePalma (vulnerable innocence stalked by inescapable evil) and Dario Argento (lurid psychedelic and/or claustrophobic environments).
Even in the annoying overuse of steadicams (which, sadly, is becoming the AutoTune of cinematography), Aronofsky’s narrative images are thoughtful and effective, and he’s well-served by cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Where he’s far less successful is in the actual dance sequences. Has he never seen a Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen movie? Or ‘The Red Shoes,’ for God’s sake? There’s no grounded framing or sense of temporal sequence to much of it – everything’s presented in 360° swooning medium shots and close-ups. I understand the need for some of that to disguise the real-world actress from the fictional dancer, but outside of the fact that there’s music in the background, the dances themselves are a kinetic mess. Choreographer Benjamin Millepied may have done terrific work here, but the film-as-shot proves to be inconclusive evidence.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be acquainted with a few professional dancers in my time, and I can confidently tell you that the mousy and deferential Nina Sayers would have been chewed up and spit out by the world of professional ballet by the time she was fourteen years old. The screenwriters, and Aronofsky, do Portman a disservice by making her so skittish and vulnerable. It serves the mechanics of the plot to present her as such an easy mark for the subsequent madness that ensues, but Portman’s character, despite her own best considerable efforts and obvious physical commitment, slowly leaks credibility as the film proceeds. A little more history to the character would have gone a long way, and that chirpy corners-of-her-mouth top-throated Ohio dialect that she chose, or the filmmakers chose for her, does her no favors.
Cassel is convincing as Nina’s impresario and balletmaster. As a martial-arts-and-capoeira guy in real-life, he brings a grounded and confident physicality to his role, and never lets the perilously sensuous aspects of his character descend into overly manipulative sleaze.
I liked ‘Black Swan’ a lot, but I certainly understand the viewpoint of the numerous people who have sounded the ‘bomb’ alert. I don’t blame them. I blame the overarching American film industry who can’t just settle for a reasonably-scaled, competent thriller, or demands Oscars Every Time Out for an obviously talented director who won’t hit a home run every time at the plate. “A beautiful, brilliant masterpiece” trumpets the blurb on the official web site. It’s not Aronofsky’s job to live up to that. He did his job, and quite well, thank you.