Black Swan/ 2010/ Fox Searchlight Pictures/ 108 min.
With the Oscars this Sunday, I want to highlight a contender with intriguing noir elements: “Black Swan.” Critic Michael Wilmington shares his thoughts on director Darren Aronofsky’s latest foray into tortured psyches and Natalie Portman’s startling performance.
Who makes crazier art movies — agonized characters, trapped in more nightmarish fixes — than Darren Aronofsky? David Lynch, Bong Joon-ho and Roman Polanski, maybe, but few others. A specialist in tales of the brilliantly sick and the sickly brilliant, Aronofsky has spun, with disorienting intensity, barmy movie stories of a crazed math genius going nuts on the stock market (in “Pi”), of a family of lower- depths junkies and pill-poppers flipping out together (“Requiem for a Dream”), and of a battered, over-the-hill wrestler putting himself through hell for one last fight (“The Wrestler.”) In “The Fountain,” Aronofsky’s whole universe went bonkers, in segments.
And in his latest movie, the justly hailed but occasionally (understandably) ridiculed dance melodrama “Black Swan,” this chronicler of mad lives charts the psychological disintegration of a young, ambitious New York ballerina named Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman with ferocious dedication), who’s been given the dream role of the swan princess of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” at Lincoln Center and promptly goes over the edge into some kind of madness, as well as, apparently, self-mutilation, paranoid fantasies and sexual hysteria.
As we watch, Nina whirls and leaps and goes delusional. And the camera seems to whirl and leap and go delusional along with her, executing wild leaps and dizzying spins, peeking over her shoulder, Polanski-like, wherever she goes. When the ballet company’s seductive bully of a master choreographer, Thomas Leroy (played by French star Vincent Cassel, as a kind of sexy, sadistic puppet-master) casts Nina as the lead in Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, replacing his former prima ballerina, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, who plays Beth like a mad, self-destructive witch), he’s simultaneously anointing her and hurling her into hell.
When he tells Nina she’s ideal casting for half the part (the role of the pure white swan) but not the other half (the wicked black swan), he’s dropping her into an inferno of nightmares, hurling a dart at the splintering psyche we glimpse beneath Nina’s “Persona”-like, beautiful, introverted face.
Aronofsky bombards us with Nina’s fears and desires, in scenes of dreamily voluptuous terror. The ballet studio and stage become arenas of paranoia. So does her home, an art-cluttered Manhattan apartment she shares with her painter mother Erica (Barbara Hershey).
Stricken with fear, Nina tears and rips at her own flesh, on her shoulder blades, her hands, near her cuticles, and then the cuts are mysteriously healed. She’s flung into predatory sexual escapades or fantasies, involving Thomas, and her main rival, Lily (Mila Kunis), whom Thomas says is the perfect Black Swan, and who (seemingly) dives between Nina’s legs one night, a fling that Lilly then denies. (“You fantasized about me? Was I good?” she asks delightedly.)
As the fantasies (?) rage, Nina becomes ill, is berated by Thomas, attacked by Beth, played for a fool (maybe) by her rival Lilly, bossed by her devoted yet domineering mother. Nina works herself into near-collapse, her mind unhinges, her body is ripped open. Lilly plays the part of seductress/rival/friend, the earthy black swan against Nina’s ethereal white. Amid this accelerating chaos, the beauty and classicism and first night of “Swan Lake” looms.
But how much of this is really happening? Is there really a theater, really a company, even really a white and black swan? We know some it is real, some of it a dream. We can never be too sure which is which. That’s what makes the movie so interesting. It hovers on camp, of course. More than hovers: it swoops and circles and dives right in.
Ballet films sometimes seem to bring out the mad poet in some filmmakers. The most famous (and best) of them, almost everyone’s favorite (mine too) was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s great, rhapsodically loony and magically colorful “The Red Shoes,” in which Moira Shearer’s Vicky suffered too.
“The Red Shoes,” a touchstone film for young dancers-to-be, is the picture whose spellbinding Hans Christian Andersen “Red Shoes” ballet scene inspired Gene Kelly’s “An American in Paris” ballet, which inspired all the others. It’s a much better film than “Black Swan” — a movie that sometimes suggests a psychotic version of “Red Shoes” directed by Polanski, with a hand from Bob Fosse and Dario Argento.
“Black Swan” is not really a horror movie, but it’s more horrific than many that are. It immerses you in paranoia, concocted by Aronofsky and his co-writers Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz (original story) and John J. McLaughlin, though it doesn’t really convince you of anything, not even at times that Tchaikovsky really wrote “Swan Lake.” Still, the movie hooks you, rakes the flesh of your imagination, even if it doesn’t put wings in the scars on your shoulder blades.
The production design by Thérèse DePrez is dreamily swank. The camerawork is mobile and sometimes even frenzied. (Matthew Libatique is the cinematographer.) I can understand the knocks, but I was never less than entertained, and I was often more than edgy.
Like “Red Shoes,” “Black Swan” is a movie that seems to adore art and creativity. But it also seems terrified of both, scared of the worlds they open up. It puts us deep inside Nina’s psyche, and that’s not a good place to be.
Just like the magical red ballet shoes that carry Vicky up and over the balustrade and to the train tracks below, “Black Swan’s” vision of dance and art is hard to take, madly over the top. But Portman (who was doubled in some dance scenes) is often madly impressive. Portman plays and dances with fierce, almost trancelike fervor, letting the nightmares pull her (and us) under.
Cassell, Kunis and Ryder are fine, often riveting — and so, I would argue is Hershey, who’s taken abuse from some quarters. I was glad to see her again. She’s a good match for Portman, and I even like the character, though Aronofsky may not. We see Erica somewhat as Nina sees her, but Nina is wrong. It’s Nina who has the white and black swan, the angel and devil in her, both just beneath the surface.
Anyway, in the end, it’s not art or artistry that drives you crazy, but the way the world treats the artists it rejects and doesn’t exploit. As for the artists themselves, even the mad, selfish ones, they can be angels, even when their hearts hide some darkness, like Nina‘s. As “Black Swan” rightly suggests, there’s something else to fear: the demons of ambition and jealousy and madness that may dwell within us, always, ready to pounce, ready to dance.
You can read more of Michael Wilmington’s reviews at Movie City News.
Author photo by Victor Skrebneski; copyright Victor Skrebneski