Black Swan, as you must know by now, concerns a production of Swan Lake by an unnamed yet clearly prestigious New York ballet company. A work that’s been done to death for sure, but the company’s charismatic, manipulative director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), assures his dancers that it’s never before been interpreted his way (and one can’t help but assume that he’s also speaking for director Darren Aronofsky). Leroy intends to stage a show that’s visceral and stripped down, and he’s searching for a hot new star after not-so-subtly forcing his aging starlet and former lover (Winona Ryder) into retirement. The gifted yet fragile Nina (Natalie Portman) would seem to be an obvious choice, especially for the pure, naïve white swan, but she’s also rigid and overly dependent on technique, and so she may ultimately be too virginal and self-conscious to conjure the powerful, carnal creature that’s required for the role’s other half: the Black Swan. The creamy Lily (Mila Kunis), on the other hand, could be just right: She’s less eager to please and more intuitive, one of those confident hell cats whose every movement seems to imply hidden erotic promise.
My language is purposefully overripe—as Black Swan, like most of Aronofsky’s films, is always on the verge of erupting into full-blown hysteria. The film opens with Nina dancing the role of the White Swan by herself in total darkness and not-so-slowly ratchets the tension from there. Reviews have compared Black Swan to The Red Shoes for obvious reasons, but Aronofsky’s film more closely resembles the horror film Repulsion, as both feature heroines whose sexual repression and insecurity slowly give way to dementia. Nina is in every scene in Black Swan, and Aronofsky always keeps the slightly wobbling camera disconcertingly close to her.
To most of the company’s surprise, Nina soon wins the lead role in Swan Lake, but that only intensifies her unease. A mysterious woman who looks an awfully lot like Nina appears to follow her on the train, while the threatening Lily has taken a suspiciously friendly interest. Leroy pokes and prods her every feeling of inadequacy, keeping his intentions deliberately, teasingly vague, while the other dancers, of course, resent Nina for presumably putting out to get the lead role. And, perhaps above all, there’s her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a failed dancer who enables her daughter’s stunted, childlike behavior, most likely out of jealousy and perhaps insanity.
The film clobbers you with its theme and portentous symbols. Theoretically, the film seems to want to be about the hypocritical mechanics of an art that chews women up and spits them out for the sin of getting older, but Aronofsky is about as interested in that as he was in the similar mechanics of professional wrestling in The Wrestler. Black Swan is actually at its shrillest and most embarrassing when feigning interest in the washed-up female characters: Hershey is okay considering her material, but Ryder, a gifted actress, is terrible in scenes that serve no other purpose than to pound the doubling/tripling/quadrupling scheme down our throats.
Aronofsky is actually interested, as he usually is, in the destruction of the human body to free the pent-up desires of the mind. There has to be a record here for the number of shots of damaged cuticles, and then there are the sound effects that emphasize the cracking of bones and the stretching and contorting of muscles. The self-mutilation, an expression of Nina’s profound self-hatred, is finally compounded by scary, disgusting hallucinations in which she sees herself literally becoming the Black Swan. Her visions purposefully lack grace, as Nina, until the end, is incapable of seeing herself as the beautiful woman that everyone else sees; she only knows the pain, the uncertainty, the disappointment of failing every day to be the illusory embodiment of perfection that she so desperately wishes to be.
Aronofsky is fascinated, like Mel Gibson when he’s directing, with pain as a gateway to some ecstatic release that ultimately gratifies the misery that came before it, and on these grounds, Black Swan is moving and effective. There’s a trade-off to Aronofsky’s pain-freak hammering; his films are convincingly subjective, certainly cathartic, but numbing. The tone never varies in an Aronofsky film and you can always count on the worst and most dramatic thing to happen—in considerable close-up—at any given time, and with the exception of a few moments in his underrated The Fountain and then The Wrestler, there are no incidental, spontaneous pleasures. Aronofsky will do anything for Effect, Effect, and Effect.
In The Wrestler, Aronofsky had a lead with the charisma to transcend his design: Mickey Rourke, banking on our preconceived notions of his personal life, projected emotional currents that didn’t seem rigidly diagrammed. Portman doesn’t have that kind of presence, and, as an actress, she doesn’t seem to have much surprise in her, something that her role as a desperate killjoy needs; there’s none of the contradiction that, say, Sissy Spacek brought to a similar role in Carrie. Portman is very convincing being pinched and pensive, and she has startling moments, particularly near the end, but that’s Nina entirely, and sometimes it isn’t enough. Kunis, playing an even more overt cliché—the bad girl most explicitly defined by her, of course symbolic, wings tat—might have been more effective as Nina, as she’s a promising actress with occasionally surprising timing. But Cassel steals the film, which is odd considering the female-centric nature of the material; he plays the one person whose motivations aren’t entirely telegraphed 10 minutes into the film, and the one role that seems to allow for any humor at all.
Ultimately, Black Swan is a B movie given the art-film treatment, a game at which Aronofsky is growing increasingly more proficient. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is a creepy, gorgeous blend of blacks and grays that suggests the lonely New York City of newcomers’ deepest fears. The handheld camera work, which mostly successfully distracted from the clichés of The Wrestler, gives the ballet world a gritty, grimy horror-film sheen that’s further accentuated by the jumpy, jagged editing that keeps you off balance. Clint Mansell’s score is characteristically excellent—an elegantly eerie piece that gracefully works in and around Tchaikovsky’s original music.
And the ending, probably the reason the film caught on so well with audiences, is legitimately dazzling—a show-stopper that sets the ending of Swan Lake inside and outside of Nina’s mind at once, transforming it, and her, into something odd and disturbed and strangely beautiful. The ending justifies the occasional halting tedium of Black Swan, as we finally grasp what Aronofsky is after: a film that reveals the toil along with the beauty of performance of any kind without one shortchanging the other. The film is maddening, uneven, often bonkers, but it has the courage of its convictions.
Fox has done an excellent job transferring Black Swan. The film's various blacks and grays, particularly in the opening and closing sequences, are sharp and varied, and the purposeful grain has been preserved without making a show of it. The special effects look, if anything, better than they did in the theater; especially the (too) numerous trick shots with the mirrors. The sound editing, as is usually the case with Darren Aronofsky's films, is top-notch, as you can sometimes distinctly make out the differing sounds that characters of differing size make as they tread on some of the old wooden floors—the sorts of seemingly incidental details that can make a world of difference to a horror film's overall effectiveness. Don't worry though: The more obvious effects, such as Clint Mansell's beautifully bombastic score, will appropriately rattle your speakers in Dolby surround.
I've often said that I would prefer one good documentary that provides an overall sense of intent and perspective than several half-ass extras that effectively tell me nothing, and that's exactly what Fox has done with Black Swan. Divided into three parts, "Metamorphosis" is a roughly 40-minute documentary that interviews several of the key collaborators while providing footage of the actual shooting of the film. There is decidedly little "so and so is brilliant, no, so and so is more brilliant" faux-sincerity, and so it isn't a long, polished trailer disguised as a special feature. "Metamorphosis" is succinct and unpretentious, giving you an idea of the genesis of the story, the work that went into the special effects, as well as the general challenges that the relatively shoestring budget presented. Well done.
Black Swan is maddening, uneven, often bonkers, but it's also often strangely beautiful.