Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan begins in dreams, with the gorgeous ballerina ingénue Nina (Natalie Portman) starring in her own twisted version of Swan Lake and awakening a little fucked up herself. The pitter patter of the little ballerina feet that fills the soundtrack to this menacingly sweet reverie, a sound that would seem to continue unabated for the rest of the film, is Aronofsky’s warped riff on the fava bean-hankering Hannibal Lecter’s flicking tongue—and like Friday the 13th‘s kill-kill-kill theme, it heralds trouble. The sound is also a symptom of the same type of lunacy—accurately diagnosed as monomania by critic Nick Davis—that grips all of Aronofsky’s characters and, at the same time, characterizes this preternaturally talented filmmaker’s frenetic style.
Black Swan is Showgirls stripped bare of its camp affections, Suspiria with a pretense to realism, Repulsion for our J-horror-addled times. It’s also Aronofsky’s The Company, an occasion for the filmmaker to reflect on his own artistic process, elegant and inelegant in equal measures, though it’s half as assured—visually, thematically, emotionally—as Robert Altman’s gorgeously complex doodle. Preposterous as it is, Black Swan is still nowhere near as ludicrous as The Fountain, and yet it’s a less rewarding vision because the filmmaker risks infinitely less with it, moving further away from Nina the closer she pirouettes toward madness.
“There’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you,” says Gina Gershon’s Cristal Connors in Showgirls. Aronofsky sympathizes with the mistreatment of female performers, how easily they fall in and out of favor and the lengths they go to in order to stay in fashion, but his empathy doesn’t run deep—at least not as deeply as Paul Verhoeven’s in Showgirls, or even Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s in All About Eve. Though it might seem provocative that the troubled Winona Ryder was cast as Beth MacIntyre, the prima ballerina in Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) company who must move aside so Nina’s star can rise, and the heavily plastic-surgeried Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother, who sacrificed her career as a painter long ago in order to cultivate her daughter’s talent, appearances can be deceiving—like everything in Black Swan.
Ryder and Hershey, like Mila Kunis, as Nina’s foxy frenemy Lilly, seem to have been cast more for their black hair and cat-like eyes—for seeming as if they could be confused for Portman, even if only from a distance. This choice becomes just another facet of the film’s punishingly literal and reductive obsession with motifs of doublings: Every mirror, every painting (don’t miss that ink blot on Thomas’s wall!), even the surface of bathtub water in one scene, is meant to be read as a window into Nina’s soul, the split between her “white” and “black” selves—but these stylistic gesticulations achieve visual symmetry at the same time as they shun insight. The screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin, which is rife with bad psychologizing and even worse dialogue (“The real work will be your metamorphosis into her evil twin!” barks Thomas as if he were instructing the Bride of Frankenstein), but Aronofsky could have fixed that: Rather than downplay the script’s inherent dumbness or make a balls-out psychedelic spectacle of the thing, he settles for embellishment of a particularly indifferent, transparent sort, more Orphan than Requiem for a Dream.
Aronofsky makes trashy what David Lynch made poignant in Mulholland Drive (one film’s girl-on-girl sex scene is a haunting expression of what a woman can never have, in the other it’s a lurid representation of the shameful things a woman has to do in order to succeed), though to be fair, Aronofsky isn’t going for poignancy here: All he wants is draaaama. But Lynch achieved both, so why can’t he? If Aronofsky doesn’t it’s because he doesn’t trust the courage of his convictions. Like Nina, who’s lectured throughout by the sweater-around-the-neck-wearing Thomas about needing to “let go,” Aronofsky seems torn between playing the film’s narrative straight or going absolutely batshit crazy. This push-pull tension is interestingly self-reflective (you may ask, “What does Aronofsky see when he looks into a mirror?”) and may connect with Nina’s crisis, but what do all of Black Swan‘s stylistic hiccups actually have to do with Nina?
Aronofsky appears to be diagnosing in Nina some psychological syndrome that’s part Stendhal, part Gypsy Rose Lee. As the pressure mounts for her to dance the part of the black swan in Swan Lake as sincerely as she plays the white one, she grows progressively mad, imagining feathers bursting from her fingers, wings from her back, and her mirror reflection teasing her with the coyness and devilishness she seems incapable of expressing. Aronofsky wants to articulate the strain of the artistic process, but he only fixates on the physical: We get close-ups of muscular bodies stretching and contorting, bruised toes, a tensed diaphragm releasing some pent-up air, but we don’t feel a thing for Nina’s psychic stress as she literally and figuratively metamorphoses into the black swan because we never get a sense for why she desires the part so ardently in the first place. Which is to say nothing of the fact that Aronofsky doesn’t seem to care very much for the actual art of dance. Quick: Name a scene in the film that is as revealing, ecstatic, and reveres the process of performance as profoundly as Naomi Watts’s audition scene from Mulholland Drive?
Like the strange noises that clog the film’s soundtrack throughout, which are memorably synced with the flashing lights that whiz by Nina whenever she peers through the reflective black abyss of subway windows, you never get a sense that her madness even belongs to her. But this is Aronofsky’s problem, not Portman’s: He boxes her character into corners with stylistic flourishes that don’t even remotely suggest the symptoms of even the fantasy psychosis the script concocts for her. Though it looks like The Wrestler, Black Swan, with its visually and sonically over-accented flourishes, behaves more like a Platinum Dunes joint. It doesn’t even merit comparison to Requiem for a Dream because at least in that hellride one felt an empathetic connection between Aronofsky’s style and the suffering of his characters.
Perhaps Black Swan, like Swan Lake, is meant to be seen itself as an opera, a fusion of synergic sound and movement—albeit a very filmic one. Aronofsky crafts the Dardenneian compositions, cinematographer Matthew Libatique dials their dreariness up, editor Andrew Weisblum sets an erratic tempo, and Portman and her fellow ballerinas provide the flailing—however infrequent—limbs, all rhymed to a predictably clangorous score by Clint Mansell. Like the recent Amer, a collision of psychologically charged signs and more signs, it doesn’t lack for fierceness, but it strains for meaning. The heightened sense of drama is apt, yes, but the overall effect is ostentatiously calculated, ill-fitting, and emotionally aloof, always for our benefit and almost never symptomatic of its protagonist’s living nightmare.