Director: Darren Aronofsky
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As an intelligent, fairly analytical, and perhaps too serious-minded writer, I try very hard not to let my feelings get in the way of assessing a film as objectively as I can before letting my gut render a final verdict. But try as I might, I just can’t seem to push down a bad case of the giggles every time I think about Black Swan. I think about the great Natalie Portman and her expressive face and interesting interpretation of an immature ballerina digging deep and going a bit mad to dance a seductive role. I remember that despite my antipathy for Tchaikovsky’s “greatest hits” composition “Swan Lake,” the ballet has poignancy and is a classic in the repertoire. I even try to remember that I liked the boldness and visual acuity of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998). Then I start giggling again. It’s really unforgivable, and I feel I owe you an explanation for this highly unprofessional behavior.
To wit, what would you do if you were facing the creative challenge of your life and the person in whose hands you’ve placed your trust, success, perhaps even your entire future, told you to “Touch yourself. Live a little.” See what I mean?
That, word for word, is the assignment Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), supposedly the world’s most dynamic new leader/choreographer for a company elite enough to be performing at New York’s Lincoln Center, gives Nina Sayers (Portman), his newest prima ballerina, to prepare her to dance both the White Swan and the Black Swan in his new interpretation of “Swan Lake.” And like a well-trained dancer, she does exactly as she is told. And just as she’s getting into it, she sees her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) asleep in a chair in her room, freaks, and hides under her covers. Thanks, Darren, we might not have seen the mommy issues without this wet dream of yours on screen, oh, except for the pink room filled with stuffed animals you put them both in and the music box with a pop-up ballerina dancing to Swan Lake Erica opens next to Nina’s bed every night to help her get to sleep.
It seems an affliction of today’s vanguard film directors to look for the source of personality and creativity in the fertile fields of the unconscious that were successfully mined by such masters as Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, and Maya Deren and come out with episodes of Dr. Phil. We’ve had Christopher Nolan’s simpleton dream vision Inception (2010), Banksy’s passé critique of the art world Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), and now Aronofsky’s deeply conventional Black Swan.
In a nutshell, Aronofsky recycles the basic story of the Powell/Pressburger masterpiece The Red Shoes (1948)—a Svengali-like head of a ballet company aims to turn a promising young dancer into a star in a radical, new ballet, with her destruction the final outcome—but completely infantilizes his dancer and turns his Svengali into a garden-variety male chauvinist pig. Although Natalie Portman is nearly 30 and looks and is quite mature, she is playing someone 10-12 years younger than herself, judging by where Nina is in her career. It seems normal to me that she would be rather sexually naïve given her age and the truncated social life her career demands. But that’s just horrible! In this film, you can’t be a great dancer unless you’re sexually mature, whereas Moira Shearer’s character in The Red Shoes became famous and then was considered ruined by her Svengali when she fell in love and wanted to get married.
Another way in which Black Swan is conventional, even retrograde in its psychology, is that it blames Erica for Nina’s “pathology” of innocence. The script even makes her a ballerina whose career was cut short by getting pregnant with Nina (no doubt by the head of her ballet company!), suggesting jealousy as a motive for Erica’s possessiveness. Erica’s character is written to be genuinely concerned about her daughter, but Aronofsky turns her acts of caring into brutal repressions—for example, seeing that her daughter has returned to a bad habit of nervously scratching her skin raw, Erica drags her into the bathroom and clips her fingernails in a manner that suggests she might just pull them out by the roots.
That’s not the only problem with Black Swan. Telling an uptight young woman she needs to get laid is a common enough slur, one that’s been around for a long time. Abusive, powerful men also never seem to go out of fashion. But to have a choreographer in the dance capital of the United States import Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer from San Francisco, to compete for the Swan Queen role he eventually bestows on Nina and become the object of another of his wet-dream scenes—one in which Nina imagines she’s having sex with Lily—suggests San Francisco is the city that “reads” gay to the straight world. In fact, Nina seems to be the representative of Straight World U.S.A., which Aronofsky appears to be whipping for being so conservative, but his clichéd handling of this story is conservatism itself.
His actors are generally adequate to great in this film, with Cassel looking and acting rather weasely in an underwritten role, Kunis perfect as a breath of fresh air in the hermetically sealed world of the dance, and Hershey brave in a thankless part. Despite being directed to speak in a shy, little-girl voice, Portman brings nuance to a role that requires her to go rather crazy, and uses her amazing eyes to bring fire to the scene where she triumphantly dances the Black Swan to unrealistically delirious ovations from the crowd. Portman has trained in dance since the age of 4, but she doesn’t suggest an elite level; Aronofsky wisely keeps the camera trained on her face, which does dance with emotion.
Where Aronofsky truly shines is in his depictions of breakthroughs of the unconscious. Nina’s hallucinations start gradually—seeing her mother’s painted self-portrait move, pulling at a hangnail and tearing a long strip of flesh from her hand—and build until she believes she has killed Lily and stuffed her body in a closet. These visions, which increase in frequency and intensity, perform the almost obligatory blurring of fantasy and reality found in so many films today, but they are completely justified by the story. Unfortunately, Aronofsky doesn’t know when to quit. He makes the audience real participants in Nina’s private hallucinations by creating a superfluously ambiguous ending that has us question what we’ve seen. It’s a conceit that Aronofsky is really playing with our unconscious when his story offers nothing archetypal for us to react to. He’s in way over his head on this one, but not deep enough in ours.