In Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays a prima ballerina with problems. She’s just been entrusted with a role she has no idea how to play. She lives with her mother, a bitter and broken-down control freak who comes on like Piper Laurie in Carrie. She’s scorned by her role model. She sees visions of her doppelgänger in mirrors, in construction walkways, and even in the bathroom. It’s possible that she’s growing wings. She may have an imaginary friend. She may be a virgin. She needs to get laid.
Such are the life and times of Nina Sayers (Portman), a young dancer in her prime, desperate for the role that will make her a star and oblivious to the increasingly garish nature of the disaster area that is her psyche. Director Darren Aronofsky documents her descent into madness from up close, urging DP Matthew Libatique’s camera in close behind her head, the better to convey the claustrophobic, compartmentalized backstage environs, or to depict the giddy tension backstage as a performer dallies in the wings, waiting for her cue to erupt into public view. It fits Nina’s relentless solipsism and introversion, attributes that drive the story. Robert Altman’s paean to this behind-the-scenes process was affectionately dubbed The Company. Aronofsky’s may as well be titled Army of One.
Black Swan deals with a period in Nina’s life that begins with anxious dreams that take place within the world of Swan Lake, the classic ballet currently being cast by her company’s artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). She campaigns for the dual role of the Swan Queen but loses the part, then wins it, then nearly loses it again. The film climaxes with an opening-night performance that the increasingly unhinged Nina faces without once having nailed the tricky part of the Black Swan.
The awesomely smarmy, allegedly brilliant Thomas (pronounced toe-MAH, natch, and played to the seamy hilt by Cassel) diagnoses Nina’s problems as sexual in nature and sends her home to masturbate. (Really!) Lily (Mila Kunis), a rival in the company whom she eventually befriends, seems to feel the same way. She could, actually, be operating as Thomas’s surrogate when she takes Nina out to a club, introduces her to a couple of horndog chowderheads who wouldn’t know Tchaikovsky from Shostakovich, and spikes her drink with a capsuleful of ecstasy. As punctuation to the evening, Lily follows Nina home, where the two women barricade Nina’s bedroom against her nosy, jealous mom (Barbara Hershey) and, semi-clad in a scene that suggests nothing more than a racier-than-usual Victoria’s Secret commercial, have rip-roaring, barn-burning, dam-busting, wall-crumbling sex.
Or maybe they don’t. As Black Swan progresses, it switches with increasing ease and frequency between events taking place in the reality of the film and feverish visions that appear only as part of the horror-fantasy realm Nina inhabits inside her head. That means that, when you see Nina pulling what look like little feathers out of her goosefleshy back or suffering from the world’s worst hangnail, you’re seeing what she imagines. A shot or two later, those wounds will be healed, leaving Nina with naught but a perfect complexion and an anguished look on her face.
If the film had the nerve to immerse itself in Nina’s World, instead of pulling back repeatedly to assure us the weirdness is all in her head, it could lead to something bracing and fantastic. That’s how superficially similar films like Videodrome and Repulsion get their kick — they commit fully to depicting the first-person experience of their freaked-out protagonists. They cross a narrative line between representation and hallucination, and that’s where they find the reflection of the tortured soul that Aronofsky seems to be chasing desperately in this film. But Black Swan undoes itself by engaging repeatedly in tepid did-she-or-didn’t-she bullshit. The self-conscious coyness fits poorly with apparently serious concerns about the physically and emotionally damaging contortions artists put themselves through, the punishing financial constraints under which they live their lives and learn their craft, and the ease with which the men in charge of such things put aging ingénues out to pasture (Nina’s stardom comes at the same moment when her predecessor, played by Winona Ryder in a role that essentially hangs her out to dry, is sent packing).
In fact, Black Swan seems barely to be interested in dance at all. In a couple of intriguing scenes, Thomas is seen using sexual intimidation as a directorial technique, exerting his own powers as a hugely confident womanizer in order to bully Nina into putting out a more erotically charged performance. (His actual staging of Swan Lake, however, seems frustratingly routine.) There are moments that remind us of the tremendous forces brought to bear on the bodies of the tiniest dancers, as Nina suffers injuries both real and imagined in the course of her training and rehearsals. But we’re allowed precious little time to watch actual dancers do their thing, largely because the film’s focus on Nina is so singleminded and Natalie Portman is not, actually, a ballet dancer. Though Portman’s physique is wasted down to balletic proportions — the outline of her ribs is clearly visible even through her ballet clothes — the film is edited carefully so that her dance movements are rarely revealed from head to toe. In one full-body shot near the end of the film, I thought I detected digital face-replacement (essentially, Portman’s head being placed on a dance double’s body in post-production), and it creeped me out. That’s just one example among several where an over-reliance on CG effects work yanked me out of Black Swan’s story and sent me tumbling helplessly into its uncanny valley. (I think I’d be less fond of even Videodrome and Repulsion if they were made using computers.)
Once I crawled out from underneath the film’s dangerous visions, its unsexy sex scenes, and its profoundly unhealthy relationships, I started to wonder just exactly what it meant to say about poor Nina, anyway. Was she a victim of her own ambition — the drive toward perfection that kept her practicing long into the night, after even her pianist fled the room, declaring, “I have a life”? Was she set up for failure by a scheming Lily, who knew that sexual awakenings and amphetamines would make for a too-potent cocktail? Was she unduly traumatized by Thomas’ strategy of pushing her to explore her dormant sexuality after too many years of mama’s-girl repression? Or was her fate settled before the events of the movie even take place — was she already twisted by too much dedication to her art, too much obeisance to her mother, too little interaction with herself and with the world outside? All of the above? None of the above? Judging from the look of near-terror plastered on her face as we first see her frantic footsteps in the dance studio, Black Swan seems to take it as a given that this girl is going to make herself crazy.
I can certainly believe in and sympathize with a dancer who tends toward psychological problems associated with body-image issues and her need to perform as she feels her biological clock tick-tick-ticking away. But still I bristle at the crude stereotypes Aronofsky employs. With the possible exception of Lily — about whose allegiances and intentions we know too little to say — the women he depicts are deeply disturbed, and they’re clichés. The fragile ballerina, the overbearing mother, the aging, self-immolating ingénue? I don’t need to see these characters again unless they’re either fleshed out with more care than Aronofsky expends here or put to less self-serious use. In this context, when I think back to the last Aronofsky movie I liked, Requiem for a Dream, and remember the depredations he visited upon Ellen Burstyn and Jennifer Connelly, it makes me shiver a little.
In terms of pure cinematic craft, Black Swan is quite accomplished; I wish I liked it more. Libatique’s cinematography, combining Super 16mm film footage and HD video shot using digital still cameras (the main attraction is the shallow-focus effects their full-size imaging chips allow), is gorgeous and precise and a wee bit experimental, as usual. (Libatique’s big break was his gig shooting Aronofsky’s grainy, monochromatic Pi way back in 1998.) I was unconvinced by Natalie Portman’s performance, but her heart and soul are clearly in the frame, and that makes her fun to watch. Mila Kunis is a pro, and endlessly charismatic, and the movie peps up a bit when she’s on screen.
Certain pictures linger in the mind — one of my favorites comes very early in the film, and it involves nothing more than Portman’s character seen from behind, twiddling her way away from the camera on tiptoes, flapping her arms up and down like the swan she is pretending to be. She’s in the center of the frame, the spotlight illuminating her for a presumed audience is positioned just to the right of center, and something about that composition suddenly highlights the expanse of empty space in the widescreen frame on either side of her. She seems unspeakably vulnerable at that moment, and without knowing everything that comes next, it’s hard to imagine just why. The image is simple and unfreighted and somehow it speaks volumes. Hauntingly, and bereft of the garish, deterministic horror-show imagery to come, it suggests a film that could have been.