Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
Ever wonder how it would feel to watch Powell and Pressburger’s classic ballet melodrama The Red Shoes while stoned? Now you can duplicate that experience legally, thanks to director Darren Aronofsky’s messy and clumsy but highly compelling Black Swan, a refreshingly uncompromising Oscar bait project that manages to retain the director’s idiosyncratic stylistics while reining in his unsavory indulgences. You can ask questions later on about whether the sexual politics of the movie are really healthy, but none of that really raises itself while the thing’s on.
Part of the reason this is such an unexpectedly vibrant and professional effort is the stark minimalism of the basic story, which owes a great deal to other films about ballet but certainly betters a lot of them in terms of technical detail. Nina (Oscar-winner Natalie Portman) portrays a talented but waifish dancer, obsessively sheltered by her batshit mother (Barbara Hershey, frightening and unintentionally hilarious) and challenged by the director (Vincent Cassel) of a production of Swan Lake to embody the White and Black Swans both. In attempting to loosen up enough to play a seductress, she’s besieged by his sexual advances, an odd relationship with her understudy (Mila Kunis) with whom she shares both bitter rivalry and a passionate sexual encounter, one or both of which may not have actually happened, and constant hallucinations suggesting a transformation of sorts. The somewhat predictable but admirably succinct finale has her falling victim to her role in a final tragic fall analogous to her character’s.
The script, long in gestation, is vague and minimal enough to draw in any number of possibilities about its actual meaning. Certainly, as admitted by the director, it owes a good deal to Roman Polanski’s psychological thriller Repulsion (complete with inanimate objects coming to life, an Aronofsky motif of sorts), also about a frail woman’s reaction to assaultive sexuality. Is the gradual unveiling of Nina’s insanity — the scratching, the visions, the entirely unresolved blurring of fantasy and reality — some strange metaphor for her acquisition of womanhood? That notion is certainly borne out by her rebellion against her Mrs. Danvers-like mother to run out on the town and take E with Kunis’ engagingly vibrant Lily, the slamming of the doors in the house to keep Mom out while she masturbates or (eventually, whether it’s real or imagined) fucks Lily.
My own notion about the movie’s thrust is a bit more literal, that in keeping with Aronofsky’s current obsession over people challenging their bodies for their art, Black Swan is simply about acting: about the sacrifice and mental confusion that comes from taking on a role. It’s emphasized again and again that to play the Black Swan, Nina must lose herself, must “feel it.” The confusion that mounts and finally kills her is some part of her own identity being twisted or lost — a notion lifted almost verbatim from The Red Shoes and likely countless other fairy tales of the stage. Even the elasticity of self in the theatrical world, not to mention the film’s theme of paranoia about an understudy, is addressed intimately by All About Eve, which Aronofsky recalls at several points, not least in his use of mirrors.
Some of the filmmaker’s more irksome earlier tendencies do show up here; the horror elements of the film are seeped in unwarranted dread and cheapness that seems incongruous with the movie’s subject matter and themes. Even the pieces that work — Hershey’s delirious performance as the controlling parent, the rather wonderful scene of her paintings coming to life — are hardly subtle. This leads to some discomfort about the movie’s sexual elements; Aronofsky suggests rape and incest but doesn’t go anywhere with either except in some clinical showcase of how it plays out in Nina’s head. He can’t even depict what seems like a pleasing and liberating sexual liaison — that between Nina and Lily — without subverting it and rendering it some sort of veiled critique of the sinister nature of what he seems to see as femininity. It’s the same story as in every other horror film: girls are pure and innocent, women violent figures to be ridiculed and feared, the taking over of the Black Swan in the end an act against its host that will be resolved heroically by her actual suicide. They’d call that slut-shaming in some places, and it’s a bit ugly; as far back as 1940 with Rebecca, these tropes were being mocked and teased. Aronofsky doesn’t seem so critical of them, which might make for an entertaining and charged film but suggests the same poor, Hays Code-like outlook on sexuality he exhibited in Requiem for a Dream. The sex-negativity is odd since one of Portman’s stated reasons for making the film was to challenge the Hollywood standard of consistently neutered female actresses, who are permitted to remove their tops but seldom to experience sexual pleasure onscreen. But whereas Repulsion is about a woman feared by men for her implicit rejection of them, Black Swan seems to itself fear a woman with unconventional impulses.
With that said, Aronofsky has clearly matured immeasurably as a craftsman in the last decade. I have not yet seen The Fountain or The Wrestler, but at some point since the deplorable Requiem he has attained a cinematic economy and wisdom that serves him well and allows him to tell a story efficiently, while also attaining a visually strong style — even if he does slightly overuse the handheld camera. His eye for dance is admirable; in both closeups and long shots, and especially in his attention to the grittier details of ballet (the minor injuries, the aspired perfection of the body, the minute problems of shoes, the endless rehearsals), he possesses an obvious appreciation for the form he’s documenting — and he does clearly see this to some degree as a documentation. He is in this regard able to better most other Hollywood films about dance (as opposed to films of dance). It’s also refreshing that this handsome production cost barely $10 million, through such enterprising tricks as the heavy use of 16mm film. Aronofsky is to be commended for how well he and his crew engineered this project.
And let’s not be faint about this: this is the sort of film in which the biggest flaws also embody the biggest risks. We can complain about the way that the eroticism is used, but it is genuine eroticism — and not just in the sex scenes, but in the acts of dance themselves. We can carp that the performance by Barbara Hershey depicts an unfairly reductive and stereotypical character, but she’s still marvelously menacing. That goes doubly for Winona Ryder, playing the former darling of the company who seems shoehorned into the story but whose every second of screen time is freakish treasure. The ending may be obvious and overly pat, but it deserves ample points for ending exactly when the story ends — the fall, the fade to white, it’s over. No stuffy epilogue, no “explanation,” just over.
Lastly, Portman herself can easily be criticized in classic My Fair Lady fashion for being the face of a film about dance despite being not a professional dancer, despite learning everything she displays here in just over a year. It doesn’t matter even a little bit. She deserves the praise she’s received because her emotional reading of the character is flawless: as naive and weak student, as pained and hurt child, as maturing sensual being, as paragon of self-doubt, as half-crazed ambitious careerist. Not only can you see it all in her eyes, you can look a little closer and see how much Portman cares that we notice all that… which in this movie is only too appropriate.