Black Swan is a big, raging swarm of a movie. It’s either a horror film with art house pretensions or an art house movie enamored of the grandiose luridness that can be borrowed from the horror genre. It rains the shrapnel of psychological warfare down upon its characters and luxuriates in the resulting wounds. It is wild, vivid, aggressive, cacophonous, twisted and strikingly fearless. It takes plot elements and turns of imagery that, on their surface, are purely ridiculous, and somehow makes them seem perfectly logical, fitting, plainly right. It is an amazing showcase for Natalie Portman, who excels in the sort of unbridled role that actors long for, tearing into her part with a previously unseen ferociousness that makes it seem like she should cross into the closing credits bent over and panting like a runner who’s just completed a marathon. It is a film that takes on its big themes like an icebreaker ship forcefully carving its way through arctic glaciers. It’s also a film that’s just not very good.
Black Swan is about a ballet dancer named Nina Sayers, played by Portman, who is given the opportunity to dance the lead in an ambitious new interpretation of the classic Swan Lake being mounted by her company. Nina is a dancer with exemplary technical skills, but an apparent dearth of passion, making her perfect for one portion of the dance performance, but severely lacking when it comes time for her to portray the seductive Black Swan. This is according to the company’s director, played with bland, mumble-mouthed imperiousness by Vincent Cassel. As the pressure of mastering the role mounts and it begins to seem her world is conspiring against her, Nina’s mental state begins to deteriorate, and the movie shifts to become an angry fever dream.
It doesn’t actually have to shift too far, though, especially since the lead character has been so clearly damaged all along that it’s a wonder she’s been able to endure the rigors of being in the troupe for a few years in the first place, much less fighting to the forefront. She begins in shards and is ground into dust. That gives Portman a lot of grandiose material to work with, but it’d be nice to have a little humanity amidst all the mental gnashing. There’s too much heavy lifting and not enough introspection to the character, which is endemic of the entire film.
The script is credited to Andres Heinz (who also has a story credit), Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin, but it clearly belongs to Darren Aronofsky all the way. It’s not just his uninspired new visual trademark of training the camera directly at the back of the main character’s head and following them as they walk through their life that bears his sooty fingerprints. Explorations of obsession and duality are undoubtedly present in the original screenplay, but, given his prior work, it’s not hard to envision it’s Aronofsky’s doing that they’re amped up to nearly toxic levels, the director hammering away at his points with a glee in the mounting misery that anything recognizably personal, small or telling is utterly drowned out. The pain on screen is rendered with determined toughness that doesn’t really register emotionally. These things aren’t happening to characters, but to dramaturgical fall guys. That hollowness pervades the piece. I’ll concede there may be some narrative integrity to exploring Nina’s sexual awakening as part of her simultaneous elevation and descent. Yet, once Aronofsky is letting his camera linger on Portman’s writhing body as she masturbates in bed, it begins to seem more like cheap luridness, there because he finds it kinda hot rather than anything it reveals about the character’s fraying psychology.
All this florid dark magic, yet Dark Swan is at its best when it is most grounded, albeit in part due to the natural contrast those portions have with their sensational surroundings. Aronofsky presses in on the dancers in their routines, not to disguise a lack of ability, but to illuminate the strain and toil of their effort. When they are at work, they truly work, and the physicality of it is piercingly real. There’s also the terrifically understated performance by Mila Kunis as Nina’s chief rival at the company. Amidst all the anguish, Kunis delivers wonderfully natural acting, reacting to the madness around her with a devil girl amusement. She grounds the proceedings even as it sometimes seems like she’s pirouetted in from a completely different movie. Thing is, I’d rather see that one.