Don’t take Black Swan too seriously
by Molly Templeton
BLACK SWAN: Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin. Cinematography, Matthew Libatique. Editing, Kristina Boden and Andrew Weisblum. Music, Clint Mansell. Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey. Fox Searchlight, 2010. R. 108 minutes.
Neither as campy as its trailer suggests nor as high art as its subject matter might imply, Black Swan is the latest in Darren Aronofsky’s string of films that are easier to admire than to like. (The Fountain, his striking, emotional and underappreciated journey through time and space, is the one Aronofsky film I actually feel affectionate about.) When you trace a line from the dense Pi to the beautifully filmed horrors of Requiem for a Dream to the lovingly followed contours of Mickey Rourke’s ravaged face in The Wrestler, Aronofsky’s films come into a peculiar sort of focus. Sharp, impeccable, filled with astonishing performances and visceral horrors, these movies walk a strange line: They’re not coolly intellectual or distant, but they often push the viewer aside, moving past the initial emotional or thoughtful response and on into something darker, more intimate — and more likely to be met with resistance. I love Requiem for a Dream for the horrifying accomplishment it is, but I’m not sure I ever want to watch it again. And I admire Black Swan for its precision, its leash on its own campy and gothic side and its incredible presentation of physical wear and tear, but half an hour after leaving the theater, its tension evaporates. The structure is solid, but the drapery — the story that carries the themes of psychological breakdown, obsession with perfection and the impossibility of simple dualities — is gauzy and thin as a worn-out piece of tulle.
Black Swan retells Swan Lake in a story about a production of Swan Lake, the ballet about a princess cursed to live as a swan whose chance at love is destroyed by another. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a brittle, nervous dancer, wants the part; her artistic director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), knows she’s perfect for the innocent, pristine Swan Queen, the white swan, but doubts her ability to embody the sensual, seductive Black Swan. Timid and controlled by her mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer, Nina has a dancer’s discipline but no inner strength. It’s a wonder she’s a dancer at all, given the backbiting tendencies of her colleagues. It’s also a wonder she’s such a compelling character, given how unsympathetic she is: Coddled and careless, she has no life outside of dancing, and even dancing seems to give her little joy.
Nina’s challenge is embodied by Lily (Mila Kunis), a new arrival from the West Coast who breezes in, all iPod earbuds, loose hair and easy smiles. She’s imprecise but passionate, and Kunis, with her sly way of smiling while looking suspicious around the eyes, makes her charming and horrid, almost oblivious to her own manipulative ways. (Winona Ryder as a fading dancer is here mostly as a cautionary tale and an extra layer of macabre bleakness; it’s in her role that Black Swan really does get a little too camp.) Lily isn’t really a threat to Nina, who’s only a threat to herself.
Aronofsky’s film — written, notably, by a trio of men — walks a careful line where Nina’s obsessive, paranoid side is concerned, showing her visions without itself obsessing over where reality and fantasy part ways. It would be silly to take Black Swan too seriously, even though it’s straight-faced and bleak, a fable about a broken girl trying to achieve a perfection she may not even understand. A crashing score, perpetually rustling suggestively; Matthew Libatique’s intimacy-invading camera; the occasional horror-movie trope — there’s something Frankensteiny in the way Black Swan is pieced together from impeccable performances, obsessive detail and ballet-movie clichés. Aronofsky’s film is a strange meditation on impossibility, sacrifice, self-denial and the uniting of things that look like opposites; it’s captivating and painful, beautiful and ugly, bleak and bright, a gorgeous mess of perfection that’s affecting but only skin-deep.