An expressionist horror film currently in wide release, Black Swan deserves recognition for dealing with such heady subjects as the duality of human nature, the fragmentation of personality by mental illness, the projection by stage parents onto their children, and the uniquely impossible demands placed on women in modern society. Conceptually audacious, and drawing on such varied sources as All About Eve, Suspiria, Repulsion, and, of course, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the film suffers from too many baroque flourishes and brushes with the garish. Also, its highly visual style, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s idea of “pure cinema”, might be taken as “operatic” in how it deals with these themes, or maybe just superficial. As with nearly all of Darren Aronofsky’s films so far, there does seem to be something missing in the storyline- a hole that gets papered over with stylistic daring.
Expressionist drama frequently depicts a central character’s spritual suffering as they go through a series of painful events quite often modeled on the stations of the cross. Our martyr here is Nina, played by Natalie Portman, a self-sacrificing ballerina whose perfectionism facilitates neurosis, bulimia, scratching her skin bloody, and finally breaking with reality. Ultimately, her stations of suffering will lead her, we are aware, to either transcendence of selfhood through dance, a mental breakdown, or death; and probably all three. It becomes clear fairly early in the film that her grasp on reality is weakening, partly because we suspect that her new friend/rival Lily, played by Mila Kunis, is just a projection of the darker aspects of her personality, particularly the sexual, and partly because Arronofsky introduces classic images of the uncanny early on, such as Nina passing herself on a sidewalk. A later scene, with Winona Ryder stabbing herself, is fully in line with the logic of nightmares. And at times, Aronofsky’s visual sense, for as refreshingly risk-taking as it is, verges on symbolism for dummies. Having Nina dressed in white as often as Lily is clad in black is a bit like hammering us over the head, not to mention a borderline-goofy late scene in the film in which a character literally transforms into a swan.
Similarly, Barbara Hershey’s overbearing stage mother is a great portrayal of a one-note character. Aronofsky uses the character partly to convey the short careers of professional ballerinas, but he also uses Winona Ryder’s character Beth to do the same and her portrayal is much more interesting anyway. As in The Wrestler, the director is fascinated with performers who pour their lives into professions that are inherently limited by the aging of the human body, itself a subject of The Fountain. Here, as well, he takes great interest in showing the daily rituals that his characters engage in; asRequiem for a Dream was nearly a primer on shooting heroin, this film is a good guide to preparing ballet shoes for dance.Expressionism also deals frequently with the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie and especially Father authority figures. Vincent Cassel, as the director of the dance company who sleeps with all his lead dancers, does a great job portraying the emotionally-distant father that dominates Nina’s psyche. He triggers a sexual awakening that makes her perfectionist character more relatable (Nina is, frankly, a bit of a prig) and is likely tied to her mental breakdown. Frankly, I think Cassel could read the phone book and make it compelling, but he’s especially good playing an asshole.
The one real problem I have with the film, and it’s a problem I have with nearly all of Aronofsky’s films (the exception being the perfect Requiem for a Dream) is that it’s not clear to me if Aronofsky is dealing with profound themes or just beckoning towards those themes without really engaging in them. A particularly over the top scene in which Portman masturbates alone in her room before recoiling in terror at a hallucination of her mother in the corner conveys the role her mother plays in the character’s psyche, but is also a little obvious. A later scene with Hershey painting image after image of her daughter verges on camp. It’s easy to imagine the film becoming a staple of drag queens and midnight showings.
But I suppose Aronofsky gets extra credit because so few general release American movies deal in any way with adult psychology anymore. The kiddie matinee so dominates the multiplexes now that we could be overestimating the handful of films that are made for adult viewers and all released in this month every year as Oscar-bait. It’s not to say that Black Swan isn’t a really good movie. But, if Arronofsky had a bit more faith in his material and his viewers, it could have been great.