Resembling a “Red Shoes” on acid, “Black Swan” takes the idea of giving one’s all for art to a morbid extreme. Applying the gritty handheld technique he successfully employed in the working class environs of “The Wrestler” to the rarefied domain of classical ballet, Darren Aronofsky swooningly explores the high tension neuroses and sexual psychodrama of a ballerina on the brink of simultaneous triumph and breakdown. With Natalie Portman, in the demanding leading role, equaling her director in unquestioned commitment, the central issue for the viewer is how far one is willing to follow the film down the road to oblivion for art’s sake.
Much as I’m enamored of “The Red Shoes,” I nonetheless always find myself jumping out of the film the moment Moira Shearer pirouettes into the path of the oncoming train at the climax. In that not one but two of the driven dancers in “Black Swan” seem to subscribe to the theory that a life in art may require the ultimate sacrifice — or at least that life may not be worth living if their creativity can’t be pursued to its limits — one must presume that Aronofsky flirts with such a view himself; Mickey Rourke’s wrestler was certainly cut from the same cloth.
A scene from Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.”
The opposite end of such overwrought preoccupation lies in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous remark to one of his leading ladies who was becoming far too anxious about her performance: “Ingrid, it’s only a movie.” Certainly, the truth must lie somewhere in between; sometimes art just happens as if by alchemy, but more often it requires passion, obsession and giving yourself over to demons and dark instincts. But I draw the line at seppuku.
As every one of his films has demonstrated, Aronofsky is a serious, driven director interested in discovering and charting outer boundaries and “Black Swan,” which opened the Venice Film Festival and will move on to Telluride and Toronto, is no different. Natalie Portman’s Nina has poured her entire life’s energy into ballet, at the expense of all else. A grown-up girl who hasn’t lived, she still shares a small Upper West Side apartment with her suffocatingly adoring mother (Barbara Hershey), has childhood stuffed animals all over her room, has never had a serious relationship (her choreographer suspects she’s still a virgin) and seems to have no friends.
Nina may be the most tightly wound character I’ve seen in a movie since Peter O’Toole’s homicidal Nazi in “The Night of the Generals” 43 years ago. Often sweaty, given to unnaturally tense little intakes of breath (the soundtrack emphasizes this), plagued by rashes on her shoulderblades (where swans’ wings would sprout) and prone to poking, cutting and splitting her skin and nails, she is often told she should relax, that she’s way too uptight.
More to the point, she’s probably afflicted by sexual hysteria. Up for the lead in a new production of “Swan Lake” at Lincoln Center (where much of the film is set), Nina is told by the imperious French choreographer Thomas (a wonderfully commanding Vincent Cassel) that he’d cast her at once if all she had to dance was the White Swan; the insidiously seductive Black Swan, he fears, may be beyond her reach. To find out, he provokes her, taunting her to seduce him, to show him she has what it takes.
Nina wins the role without having to go that far (although many of her sister dancers believe it anyway) and practices relentlessly, to the point of breaking. When one star is born, however, a previous one must pass by the boards, in this case the aging Beth MacIntyre, played with an almost frighteningly credible neurotic intensity by Winona Ryder that sets the bar high for Portman to match.
Pushing herself into Nina’s life in a different way is company newcomer Lilly (Mila Kunis), who’s as loose and uninhibited as Nina is frigid and constipated. At first offering herself up as a friend, Lilly morphs into a conniving rival, at least in Nina’s mind, which brims with paranoid fantasies. Lilly also becomes a source of potential erotic pleasure, to the point where an intense girl-on-girl encounter seems to provide Nina with the physical breakthrough she’s needed, even if, again, this was just a figment of her dangerously accelerating imagination.
As a sensory experience for the eyes and ears, “Black Swan” provides bountiful stimulation. Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique choreograph the camera in beautiful counterpoint to Portman’s dance moves, especially in rehearsals, and the muted color scheme on rather grainy stock look like a more refined version of what the director did on “The Wrestler.” Tchaikovsky’s ever-present music supplies plenty of its own drama and the dance world details seem plausible enough.
But when the script by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz, based on the latter’s story, struggles to carve out a real-world parallel to the life-and-death struggle depicted in the dance story, it goes over the top in something approaching grand guignol fashion. Particularly grating is Hershey’s insufferable mother character, who persists in calling Nina “my sweet girl” and barging into Nina’s room whenever she feels like it while nursing a perennial grudge over having given up her own career to raise her daughter, to the point where she resembles the mother in “Carrie” more than someone who actually lives in the real world.