Black Swan

Dir: Darren Aronofsky

Rating: 2.8/5.0

Fox Searchlight Pictures

103 Minutes

We all know by now that Darren Aronofsky likes self-destructive monomaniacal characters. In his short oeuvre of films we already have a housewife destroying herself with diet pills, a has-been wrestler with a bum ticker returning to the ring and jumping off the turnbuckle, a conquistador’s quest for the Fountain of Youth pushing him towards destruction and a brilliant mathematician putting a drill to his own temple. In Black Swan, Aronofsky’s riff on Swan Lake, we can expect similar mania but this time in the world of ballet.

Starring Natalie Portman as the perfectionist ballerina Nina, Black Swan is Aronofsky’s twitchiest and least likable work to date. While we cheered for Randy the Ram in The Wrestler and felt genuinely bad for all the characters in Requiem for a Dream, it is hard to feel for Portman’s Nina, a hyper-competitive dancer who covets the lead role in her company’s production of Swan Lake. On the verge of a hysterical breakdown for the film’s entire runtime, the virginal Nina is technically proficient to play the White Swan role, yet lacks the fiery passion to pull off the other half of the role, the maleficent Black Swan.

While Aronofsky is considered one of our preeminent filmmakers, at the nub of Black Swan is a trashy story, gussied up to pass itself off as art cinema. Calling on every trope and cliché established by other dance troupe films such as The Red Shoes, Black Swan focuses on how Nina’s single minded pursuit of the role pushes her closer and closer to the brink of madness.

There’s the lecherous director (Vincent Cassel in a smarmy performance) who tries to get Nina in touch with her vagina, the competition in the form of Mila Kunis, the aging dancer (Winona Ryder) who has aged her way out of the limelight. They’re all here (or not- since much of the film takes place in hallucination), all obstacles in Nina’s quest for the lead role. Even Barbara Hershey, unrecognizable here, as Nina’s controlling mother turns into a monster in her addled mind.

Aronofsky is not content to simply make trash, however, and there is a half-hearted exploration of duality in here, invoking the White/Black Swan sides of the same coin. The characters are surrounded by mirrors for much of the film and much has been made of the girl-on-girl action between Portman and Kunis. However, Portman may just be frigging herself as it’s not clear whether Kunis’ character truly does exist or is just a psychic extension of Nina’s fractured personality.

Black Swan is definitely tense and there are plenty of uncomfortable and gory scenes for those expecting drills through heads and forks jammed into hands. Is Nina really physically turning into the Black Swan or is it entirely in her mind? It doesn’t matter because watching her peel off her fingernails is disturbing enough, even if it’s just occurring in her psyche. The film does, look great, however, Aronofsky’s tight close-ups making for uncomfortable viewing as we follow Nina across the stage and down into the bowels of the theater, unsure when the next horrific hallucination will strike. Strange noises, unsettling noises fill the soundtrack, the whisper of rustling feathers, the nattering of ballet shoes on the stage. Aronofsky attempts to keep us off-guard, rattle us with uncertainty. He does a good job with it.

In the end, the humorless Black Swan feels like nothing more than a genre exercise, peppered with the typical Aronofskian gore and self-destructive lead. When the film finally comes to its exhausting end, it is impossible to feel for Nina as we did for Randy the Ram’s (possibly) final leap onto the stage. We’re too busy being bombarded to care.

by David Harris

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