It takes almost no time to demystify Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which is a real shame because its slight of hand is most of what it has going for it. I spent most of its duration guessing where it could be headed besides the obvious, but I was left sorely disappointed by the end. Aronofsky has made a striking film that will certainly incite discussion if only for his referential technique (Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, Polanski’s Repulsion, Argento’s Suspiria, and there’s probably more), but ultimately it is empty, lacking the elements it so desperately tries to evoke, namely sexuality, musicality and brutality.
Black Swan is the story of Nina Sayers, a virginic dancer with a New York ballet company played by Natalie Portman. When she gets the lead spot in a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, she must grapple with her rigidity in order to fulfill darker side of her character’s dance. As the white swan, she is a perfect fit given her tightly wound prissiness; it is the black swan transformation that she has trouble with. Nina must access her dark side, her pent up sexuality, in order to succeed.
Swan Lake’s narrative, it is made clear, parallels Nina’s, a conceit that becomes annoyingly obvious once Mila Kunis shows up as Lily, a wild, disorganized and passionate dancer who wears exclusively black apparel (shocker). The effect plays about well as in Twister where the baddies drove black SUVs while the good guys towed around in white, which is to say it plays predictably.
Aronofsky’s lack of a funny bone severely brings this film down. There are laughs, but they appear by mistake. Two big ones break up masturbation sequences (yep, plural). It’s not as much that the director should be bringing proper laughs to this sort of a film, but if he had a clue about comedy he could have avoided these awkward truncations. Moreover, if this film is missing anything it’s a comedic self-awareness. So much energy is spent hiding the mysterious, the phantasmagoric elements of the film that the human element is never allowed to shine through.
When it comes to sex, Aronofsky seems to approach the topic too literally. Just having two hot young actresses go at it does not make the film sexy. The much ballyhooed lesbian scene plays mechanically, straightforward; not erotic. There is a romance to the camera, to the editing that Aronofsky is missing. The filmmaker is not making love with the tools he has at hand so the passion falls flat. This doesn’t just go for the sex, either.
As a dance film, Black Swan is second rate. There is some inspired closeup photography of Portman’s feet, plié-ing and pas de deux-ing all over the place, and there are definitely a few wonderful sequences including Nina’s final attempt at becoming the black swan. However, overall, Aronofsky treats dance less as art and more as sport. Focusing on the feet of a ballet dancer basically misses the forrest for the trees. Mao’s Last Dancer from earlier this year had an atrocious narrative but at least its dance numbers were impeccably executed. Aronofsky focuses on his gritty flourishes so much so that we miss the point of the dance, which ultimately brings the story down. If we never see why Nina loves to dance (but we do hear her say it) then why should we follow the plot at all?
I’ll admit, I’m being a bit hard on this film, but I feel very strongly that its shortcomings outweigh its successes. What it gets right are the cinematic equivalent of parlor tricks, which is a grave frustration given how good this film wants to be. When you remove the film’s plasticity, you are left with nothing much at all but a 135 year old Russian ballet. I’d rather go see it at Lincoln Center myself.