Repulsion. Suspiria. Shine. The Piano Teacher. These were four movies Black Swan made me think of without effort. Others have brought up Persona and Mulholland Drive. They work too. It doesn’t really matter which movies people bring up in connection with Darren Aronofsky’s movie, the bottom line is: they’re all likely to be superior than this derivative mess. Imagine if Brion Gysin instead of cutting up newspapers to compose poems, cut up famous films to make a new one. We’d call it Brion Gysin’s Black Swan.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, a repressed ballet dancer with low self esteem who’s dominated by her mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer who gave up her career to have Nina and who experiences glory through her daughter’s success. And success arrives when Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), Nina’s company director, offers her the roles of the White Swan/Black Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But Nina, the meek, virginal damsel, will have to get in touch with her dark side in order to play the role of the sensual, dangerous Black Swan. Will she manage it or will the pressure drive her crazy?
This is a rhetorical question, by the way. There’s really no suspense here: Nina is a basket case from the start. As soon as the movie starts she’s already lost in hallucinations.
There’s also no explanation why Thomas, who’s never seen Nina display a dark side, thinks she can play the dual role. It must be faith. Of course to help her he sort of sexually harasses her, taunts her in front of others and even suggests she masturbate to ‘live a little.’ Cassel, a provocative devil to the angelic Portman, is a delight to watch and delivers arguably the only good performance in the movie – sexy, bullying and arrogant; he’ll destroy Nina’s self if that will get a great performance out of her.
The rest of the cast isn’t up to much: Hershey and Winona Ryder, who plays an aging dancer forced into retirement so Nina can have her role, deliver efficient performances considering the weak material they got. Portman, desperate to prove her thespian talents, oscillates between hysteria and mediocrity. Watching her I didn’t have the impression I was watching a tour de force but a little girl pretending to be an excellent actress playing a poorly-written character who’s supposed to be a complex and tormented ballet dancer.
The movie makes a big deal about how Nina’s dancing style must change to suit the Black Swan. It’s seductive, looser and more uncontrolled. We’re supposed to think that when she finally plays the Black Swan it’ll be a transcendental moment – somehow she will marvel us with the perfection of her performance, a perfection she achieves at a very hard price and with much sacrifice. But it’s exactly the way Nina plays every time in the movie. The audience claps fiercely, Thomas congratulates her, but nothing has changed.
The cast, which isn’t very remarkable, fails to salvage the script, which is awful. Is the movie at least technically good? I’m on the fence. The cinematography and editing are efficient. Aronofsky brings in interesting horror aesthetics too. I love all the tricks of the trade he employs to show Nina’s madness: mirror reflections moving independently, her face projected on others, talking drawings. From David Lynch he lifts spooky sound effects that underscore tension and the fragmentation of reality.
When the movie focuses on Nina’s madness it’s quite good actually. Her sense of persecution is quite believable, especially when she suspects that Lily (Mila Kunis), is trying to steal the lead role from her. Kunis doesn’t do much either, but it’s fascinating that the perception of her as an antagonist is not supported by anything she does but only by what goes on in Nina’s mind.
Sadly the movie also uses visual effects that cheesy B horror movies would only use at gunpoint. The scene of Nina turning into a black swan in the movie’s climax looks distractingly fake in a way that a Cronenberg or Carpenter movie 30 years ago, with less money, wouldn’t have.
Then there’s the simplistic colour scheme – Nina wears white because she’s good and innocent; Lily wears black and if that’s not obvious enough she has black wings tattooed on her back. When Nina starts going dark, she starts wearing dark. Perhaps Aronofsky thought the hearing impaired in the audience couldn’t get the colour/concept association right from the countless times the screenplay spelled it out loud, so here’s some nice visual support.
Black Swan is as unbalanced as Nina’s sanity – a poorly-written movie taking itself more seriously than its foundations on pop psychology, clichés about tormented geniuses and melodramas permit it. The result is over-the-top kitsch. Nothing stands out except Tchaikovsky’s music, which, in comparison to the one by Clint Mansell, the fraud of frauds of film music, shows how low the standards in film music have fallen. A few composers could give Tchaikovsky a run for his money: Ennio Morricone, Georges Delerue, the recently deceased John Barry, but not Mansell. Here he seems satisfied with the tracks Angelo Badalamenti must have decided not to use in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. This is what the whole movie looks like: leftovers from other movies, half-good ideas, untapped potential. It aims at the magnificence of Swan Lake but it soars only to fall to its death like Icarus.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: John J. McLaughlin, Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel
Runtime: 108 min