I’ve always been a little scared of ballet dancers. And Barbara Hershey. And birds. And even Natalie Portman, who reminds me of the popular girl who’s only nice to you when no one else is looking. So it’s very clever of director Darren Aronofsky to put them all together in one movie. What’s not so clever is the movie.
In Black Swan, Natalie stars as Nina Sayers, a technically perfect, but somewhat soulless ballet dancer under the thumb of her obsessive mother (Hershey) and her lecherous dance instructor (Vincent Cassell). Setting the plot in motion is a new production of Swan Lake. Nina would love to dance the lead, but as the director tells her repeatedly, it’s a dual role, and while she’s perfectly virginal to play the White Swan, she’s just not slutty enough to play the Black Swan. He says this so often that I expect it to become the foundation of the Black Swan drinking game in gay bars around the world.
Unfortunately, Nina has been oppressed and infantilized by her mother, a former dancer who’s living vicariously through her daughter. Nina has no life outside the ballet or outside her mother’s watchful eye. You know what she needs? A bad influence. Enter Lily (Mila Kunis), a free-spirited dancer from scandalous San Francisco, who has Black Swan written all over her. Is she the key to unlocking Nina’s sexuality? Or is she just a scheming and treacherous understudy? Is Nina cracking under the pressure of dancing the dual role? Or is everyone really out to get her?
Aronofsky’s previous effort was The Wrestler, which garnered much acclaim, but left me cold. Oddly enough, Black Swan follows the same trajectory. Aronofsky seems fairly obsessed with the frailties of the human body, which is great. Something as simple (yet universal) as a torn cuticle has the audience squirming in discomfort. The deterioration of the physical to mirror the breakdown of the mental is all very well played here. The problem (and my problem with The Wrestler) is the slavish devotion to formula. Aronofsky telegraphs the entire story from the very beginning. Then, when things really start getting interesting, and it appears that the story will take a detour from the expected, Aronofsky pulls the reigns in and we’re set back along the same, predictable course he promises from the very beginning. The script and direction beat the audience over the head with an old pair of toe shoes and don’t let up until all the predictable elements have fallen into place.
Portman and Hershey give chilling performances, but both are ultimately undermined by the predictable machinery of the script and direction. It’s a shame, really, because while Nat is getting all kinds of accolades for the role, I believe she’s wasted here. Physically, she is perfect, but her performance begs to be unleashed in a less conventional movie. Take Winona Ryder, for instance. She plays the rejected and retiring ballerina who resents Nina’s rise to glory. Do I need to tell you any more about her? Ryder’s performance clearly wants to. But Black Swan views her as simply one more element on a checklist.
A good production of Swan Lake will seduce you and make you think that maybe…just maybe…this time things will turn out differently. Black Swan would prefer you not use so much imagination.