Ballet: Boring or scary? Scary, says Darren Aronofsky’s new head trip.
Black Swan (2010)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Thanks most likely to the arresting imagery of its trailers, Darren Aronofsky’s beautifully nightmarish film Black Swan has captured a lot of people’s attentions. Despite its rarified setting and artsy style, the “ballet thriller” (I honestly don’t know what else to call it) seems to have danced its way into the zeitgeist. Internet buzz is high, audiences seem curious and the film even scored its own pop-cultural reference on a recent episode of the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.” So what’s all the fuss about?
Certainly, Black Swan is one of the most eye-catching films of the year. You’d expect no less from the visionary director who gave us Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler. But is it really a film suited for mass audiences? Probably not. But you never know what people will choose to latch on to.
If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say a psycho thriller about the insecurities and bodily obsessions of classical ballet dancers isn’t exactly aimed at the hoi polloi. Natalie Portman is our main actress here, and she certainly puts her all into it. She plays Nina Sayers, a naive, young dancer with a tony Manhattan ballet company. When the company’s director casts Nina as the Swan Queen in a high-minded “reimagining” of Swan Lake, her deep-seated insecurities take over. As played by the commandingly sexual Vincent Cassel (Mesrine, Irreversible, Brotherhood of the Wolf), our director-man is egotistical, pretentious and manipulative. (Same as every other director ever portrayed on film, basically.) He thinks Nina is perfect as the fragile, virginal While Swan. But he’s not convinced she can pull off the evil, seductive Black Swan. Given that Nina lives at home with a controlling s/mother (Barbara Hershey, wonderfully cast) and a pink-walled bedroom full of stuffed animals, it’s a legitimate concern. Technically, Nina’s perfect; but she lacks the emotional experience to give the dual good girl / bad girl role the spark of life.
As Nina tries to think her way into the character, she meets various obstacles along the way, including an out-to-pasture former diva (Winona Ryder) and an uninhibited young lass (Mila Kunis) who either wants to befriend Nina or steal her part. Ryder (evoking memories of her own long-gone child star past) and Kunis (greatly improving on her “That 70’s Show” gig) are fine additions to the all-around impressive cast. With the ballet’s punishing rehearsal schedule wearing on her and premiere night looming, Nina is beset by increasingly frightening visions of evil doppelgängers, menacing mirrors and nasty skin conditions. While this could bespeak some sort of transformative, otherworldly terror, it doesn’t. It basically just means poor obsessed Nina is going nuts over her new role.
If you wanted, you could get into a smarty-pants, symbology-laden discussion over what is and isn’t real here. But it’s not terribly relevant. Black Swan isn’t meant to be a mind-bender. It’s a pretty simple story: Unstable gal goes crazy, the end. In that respect, it might do OK with general audiences. There are no complicated twist endings, alternate realities or dream levels to navigate. For all its visual flourishes and trippy visions, Black Swan is more or less what you’d wind up with if you took the backstage, show biz melodrama of All About Eve and let David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers) remake it.
Simplicity of concept aside, Black Swan works. Aronofsky is a master of mood, and Black Swan is suffused with a dark and creepy tension from Frame 1 forward. There are some icky moments of bodily horror (hence, the Cronenberg reference). And if you’re going to choose a career with which to confront uncomfortable bodily issues, ballet is perfect. These boys and girls do some nasty stuff to their bodies on a daily basis.
You have to admire Aronofsky for his persistence of vision. Black Swan is out there. Way the hell out there. Is it a horror movie? A psychological thriller? An old-fashioned melodrama gone cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs? It’s got a lot more in common with the admirable but inaccessible vanity project The Fountain than it does with the gritty, pitch-black drama of The Wrestler. Credit where credit is due, though: Black Swan is a fine mood piece. It’s tense. It’s sexy. It’s disturbing. It could very well be one of the best films of the year. I still don’t believe many people, realistically, will be able to sympathize with the intense physical and psychological pressure of landing the role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. But as an absurd, lurid, arty, over-the-top freak show, Black Swan is mesmerizing.