Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is, on the surface, a perhaps unintentional companion piece to his previous film, 2008's The Wrestler, ballet being the extreme-feminine answer to professional wrestling's extreme-masculine version of physically demanding sport-as-performance art.
As in The Wrestler, Aronofsky lingers over the physical toll ballet takes on his protagonist — cracking feet, peeling skin, bloody, broken nails. And he builds the film — as with The Wrestler — around a role seemingly designed to launch his lead onto the Oscar platform, with Natalie Portman the recipient this time around.
But where The Wrestler's unimaginative setup sticks to traditionalism, Black Swan's received backstage-drama premise ultimately gives way to pure, movie-mad spectacle.
It's nearly impossible — at least for me — to approach Black Swan without filtering it through cinematic predecessors — and lots of them. And how successful the film is may depend on what kind of hand-me-down movie you think it is or maybe on what you're willing to let it be. Is this a dance-world-set answer to John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence — a frenzied but ultimately serious depiction of a female protagonist cracking up? Or is it more like what would happen had the Repulsion/Rosemary's Baby-era Roman Polanski directed a Showgirls/The Red Shoes mash-up — madness and mischievousness overwhelming seriousness?
If you insist on the first reading and approach the film with any kind of earnestness, then it borders on the risible. But if you can accept the latter, Black Swan is about as much fun as you can have at the movies right now, though this reading requires the viewer to accept a movie about a woman falling apart as nothing more than a midnight-movie pleasure.
Add in elements of extreme stylization indebted to Brian De Palma (echoes of Carrie, Dressed To Kill, and even The Phantom of the Paradise) and a dollop of body-horror borrowed from David Cronenberg, and you have a sense of all the elements wildly at play here.
By applying this psychodrama and stylization to comparatively light, surface-bound material, Aronofsky crafts — and, yes, this is a backhanded compliment — his most enjoyable film. What, you'd rather see such intense silliness applied to Addiction in America than to Hollywood Actresses in Tutus?
Portman here is Nina Sayers, a nervous ballerina who has been waiting too long for a big break that could finally come when company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces he wants a new face to front his re-imagined version of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, pushing his aging prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) into retirement in the process.
Thomas sees the fragile Nina as perfect for one half of the schizophrenic lead role, that of the White Swan. But he doubts her ability to transform into the more carnal Black Swan. Thinking Nina too virginal — okay, frigid — for the role, Thomas first seduces and then challenges her — "Are you a virgin? Do you like sex?" — before commanding her, with perhaps unintentional hilarity, to go home and "touch yourself." This results in Nina, (seemingly) alone in her pink, pastel bedroom at her mother's Manhattan apartment, essentially humping her comforter, inspiring my favorite Twitter movie reaction of the year: "Who masturbates like that?"
But Nina, who aches to be perfect, is willing to push herself to the limits to meet the demands of the dual role. She wants to master it so badly that it begins to undo her.
Portman is triangulated by three female co-stars: Ryder is the exiled star who resents Nina's rise. A ghastly Barbara Hershey is the failed-dancer show-biz mom, doing a less intense riff on Piper Laurie from Carrie. And Mila Kunis as Lily is the would-be rival, a new hire from San Francisco who is pitched as Nina's opposite — less certain technique but a freer, less self-conscious performer. Lily becomes Nina's understudy and, as Nina sees it, is coming for her job — among, ahem, other things.
Without, hopefully, giving away too much, the Persona-style doublings suggested by the film's trailer aren't quite as rich or provocative as promised, as it becomes clear that the film's very subjective, highly unreliable viewpoint is Nina's.
Black Swan's mise-en-scène is awash in mirrors and, before long, you can bet those mirrors are going to turn on poor Nina. The film's general unease builds slowly before going completely batshit haywire in its second half. With a climactic performance shot with expressionistic zeal, cinematographer Matthew Libatique's camera darts and twirls around Portman like a rival dancer.
Portman gives an effectively anxious, uncomfortable performance as the fragile, tightly wound Nina — more Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby than Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. And, to this untrained eye, Portman passes for a high-level ballerina well enough to avoid distraction. Certainly, her delicate but muscled physique suggests no disconnect between femininity and strength. And in a movie where nearly every garishly depicted character is pure cardboard, Kunis' unfussy, in-on-the-joke depiction of the alleged bad girl hits the movie like a fresh breeze.
There's no emotional weight to Black Swan at all. It's all movie-mad surface frenzy and gonzo psychodrama, and honestly, Aronofsky is in less control of his mad pulp fictions than Verhoeven was in the misunderstood, intentional-camp Showgirls. It may actually be that Aronofsky takes this lurid, crazy, deeply enjoyable mess of a movie seriously. But that doesn't mean you have to.
Opening Friday, December 17th
Ridgeway Four and Studio on the Square