By Richard von Busack
THE WEIGHT of Black Swan’s neon-purple romanticism falls on Natalie Portman’s thin shoulders. Starved to a skeleton for the role of a prima ballerina, she’s aesthetically pleasing: the fine Vulcan eyebrows and the peerless cheekbones are on view in every shot. It’s when you get below the neck that matters get alarming: was she this thin in those movies like Goya’s Ghosts or V for Vendetta, where she was locked in a dungeon? See her ribs sticking out and know that Portman is inevitably Oscar bound; if the winners are her and James Franco for 127 Hours, it’ll be a self-mutilator’s duet.
Portman plays Nina, a dancer in New York. Nina sleeps in a room surrounded by a busload of stuffed bunnies. Her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who wakes her up and tucks her in at night, brings her the only meal she consumes in the movie, a boiled egg and a half-grapefruit; they both coo at the fruit’s adorable pinkness.
No surprise that the director of the ballet company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel, whose authenticity anchors this mad story), is exasperated by Nina’s overly fussy, virginal approach to the dance. In our first sight of Thomas, looming behind the rows of seats, with arms folded and chest out, he poses like a superhero. Later, after the flamboyant madness and high pitch of Black Swan, we may start to feel we’re watching a rehearsal of the Gotham City Ballet.
On tap is the old mortgage-lifter, Swan Lake: “It’s been done to death, I know, but not like this!” Thomas declares. With the challenge to the dancers comes bad news. First, the arrival of a new young dancer from San Francisco, Lily (Mila Kunis).
Then Thomas publicly jettisons his former diva, Beth (Winona Ryder), who is considered too old to perform anymore. The movie-about-movies aspect of this film is reflected in the personal arc of Ryder: 15 in Beetlejuice (1986), Ryder was recently seen in Star Trek (2009) as a 38 year old, painted with wrinkles, and playing the mother of 32 year old Zachary Quinto. If she plays a raging, discarded woman in Black Swan, who can blame her?
Trapped between new rival, harsh, groping director and smothering mother, Nina starts to crack. Mirrors go bad, and she hears voices; the double-identity plot of Swan Lake makes Nina feel that she’s being shadowed by a dark companion. Thomas’ advice wanders out of bounds (“Go home and touch yourself”), and even the treacherous Lily begins to look fragrant to the shocked heroine.
It’s honest enough to want to see a romance in which Mila Kunis ends up with Natalie Portman, but the much-vaunted sex scene is better imagined than actually watched; director Darren Aronofsky is nobody’s idea of a sensualist. He doesn’t often do lyrical or languid work, and the bedroom tussle between Nina and Lily has a grim side, like the shock-horror XXX sex act in director Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.)
Self-mutilation has been a part of Aronofsky’s work ever since Pi. He prepares us for the torture from the beginning, when Nina cracks her toes in the morning, and they sound off like gunshots (or like the preliminary to the bar fight scene where a muscle-head cracks his knuckles).
Aronofsky shoots the breaking in of new slippers in ghastly close-up: the pretty satin thing disemboweled of its insole, the sides stabbed with a sewing needle, the soles scored with scissor blades to give it traction. Nina herself is a skin picker, brutally paring her nails, or else they’re sliced off by mother.
In the rehearsal scenes, the camera spins around with the dancers, and we hear the scuffing of feet and the harsh panting of the dancers. It all goes beyond a Degas view of dancers contorted into harsh poses and into the aspect of a forced ordeal. The dancing is all hard, anguish-ridden work. When the music commences, Black Swan finally feels like a great movie, simply because the Tchaikovsky would make us believe anything…even the mood of cracked Freudianism Aronofsky tries to instill. It’s Hershey who makes this fantasy’s mom-madness plausible. The best joke in Black Swan is the scene of Nina’s ever-ringing cell phone; its screen blares the word “MOM” in capital block letters.
The wildness of Black Swan’s color is a treat in a cinematic world where we’re putting up with the worst color since 1932, thanks to endless computerized twiddling. Some of the awed reception of Black Swan seems to reflect the need for a great movie this time of year—or is it mindfulness of Michael Powell’s broken-hearted ghost, grieving at those who couldn’t succumb to The Red Shoes? Black Swan is less like Powell and much more like a Brian De Palma film, anyway—it’s a film of technical virtuosity, shock and voyeurism, but without De Palma’s sense of play or wit.
Aronofsky takes this 1940ish plot about a frigid woman going nuts so very seriously. I realize that the glut of superhero movies has treated similarly flimsy subjects as opera, but at least those cartoon stories are matters of things that are easily understood: fantasies of revenge and urban fear. It’s harder to get into the skin of a were-swan who thinks she’s starting to fledge.
Portman couldn’t be more straightfaced, or more plaintive as a woman in peril. Occasionally, she can’t reach what she’s aiming at, but who can blame her? Ballet communicates through physical motion more than facial expression. And show me an actress who can make a face like a dying swan.
Yet the most effective moments are the less-cooked, trademark Aronofsky ones: a reprise of a situation in Pi, the nasty experience of walking a plywood tunnel around a construction site with blind turns, like a rat in a maze. In moments we get the sense of a city that’s too loud, too fast, or too close, filled with snarling humans…the eyes of a stranger boring into you on an overlit, mostly empty subway car.