By Don Simpson | December 10, 2010
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writers: Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey
Black Swan is a film about fame and how said fame consumes the soul. (You know, like Faust, but without a literal pact with the devil.) Nina (Natalie Portman) is the all-too average ballerina who aspires for greatness; she sees an opportunity to achieve said greatness in Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake because whoever is cast as the Swan Queen will have the unique privilege of portraying both the innocent white swan, Odette, and her wicked black double, Odile. (The yin and yang of the ballet world.)
Nina is frigid, mousy, and prone to crying. Still living with her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina’s bedroom is decorated in the princessy pink and frilly lace of a prepubescent girl’s with stuffed animals galore. We are repeatedly told that Nina would make the perfect white swan (she even wears white and light grey clothing); it is the black swan that would be difficult for her. Enter Lily (Mila Kunis) — with black swan wings tattooed on her back — the quintessential sexy bad girl…thus the perfect black swan (yes, she wears black clothing). It is difficult not to recognize Lily as Nina’s doppelgänger in this classic tale of good versus evil — the “white” versus “black” selves. Nina’s competitive genes are subsequently amped up to eleven, as jealousy and her festering obsession with perfection drive her closer and closer to madness…and thus her nightmarishly surreal hallucinations commence.
Director Darren Aronofsky (the proverbial king of nightmarishly surreal hallucinations) has never backed down from an opportunity to interject his films with signs, symbols and metaphors. Sure, in Black Swan, he goes a bit overboard with all of the mirror images and paintings used to represent duality (or multiplicity); but I think it is all in fantastically awesome playfulness. Aronofsky even goes as far as providing us with three alternate personalities for Nina — her mother, Lily, and Beth (Winona Ryder) — all representing possible futures for her. Yes, it is heavy-handed and obvious…but entertaining nonetheless. (Black Swan is quite similar to Inception — on the surface both films purport to be deep and profound; yet the preponderance of signs, symbols and metaphors are all too obvious and one-dimensional.)
Aronofsky has proven to us time and time again that he has a fetish for pain and disfigurement; with Black Swan, ballet is nothing but painful, torturous and ego-tastic. Similar to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (to which Aronofsky finds himself deeply indebted), Black Swan is by no means a graceful, romantic or sympathetic perspective of ballet. With the Beth character Aronofsky comments on the short lifespan of ballerinas, as the aged starlet is forced into retirement; and he uses Nina’s character to bring certain body image issues to the table.
Black Swan is a strange hodgepodge of cinematic genres: dance, drama, horror, and erotic thriller. (If you can imagine Robert Altman’s The Company directed by David Cronenberg and David Lynch, you would be approximately halfway there.) Engrossing and intense, dreamy and nightmarish, and totally transfixing, Black Swan enraptured me and transported me into the fantastical black and white and red world which Aronofsky created with the assistance of cinematographer Matthew Libatique. The feathery end credits of this pure escapist fantasy came all too soon. While on the subject of endings… All good things must come to an end, and I guess it is finally time for me to hop off of the “I Hate Darren Aronofsky” bandwagon. Aronofsky has finally won this film critic over. (I still think everything else Aronofsky has made is a bunch of pretentious and superficial shite…except for maybe The Fountain.)
Far from flawless, my main criticisms of Black Swan are that Nina appears to be just a superficial collection of neuroses, not a fully fleshed-out character, and Black Swan relies a bit too much on the victimization of Nina at the [groping] hands of others. Portman reportedly dropped 20 pounds for this role and it is hard to deny the amount of effort she put into preparing for this role; nonetheless, I suspect that ballet aficionados will nitpick to no end about Portman’s technique. Regardless, I will be very shocked if Portman does not walk away from the 83rd Academy Awards with the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (personally I think Michelle Williams deserves to win for Blue Valentine).
If all you care about is seeing Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis get it on; trust me, the girl-on-girl sex scene is totally overrated. But, do not fret; Portman’s masturbation scene is quite eager to please. All in all, there seems to be a magnetic attraction to Portman’s crotch (or crotch double); as multiple hands (or hand doubles) — including her own — and at least one mouth find their way down…umm…there. (In a film that is so laden with symbols and metaphors, I am still trying to determine if there is some penetrating inner meaning to all of this hanky-panky.)