Black Swan
Reviewed in October 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Darren Aronofsky. Cast: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Ksenia Solo, Tim Lacatena, Toby Hemingway, Sebastian Stan, Marcia Jean Kurtz. Screenplay: Mark Heyman and Andrés Heinz and John J. McLaughlin.
Twitter Capsule: Frazzling dread, superbly lensed, good for shabby shocks—and yet a thin pillowcase of cliché, stuffed with cheap tricks

Photo © 2010 Fox Searchlight Pictures
Darren Aronofsky's anxious-ballerina freakout Black Swan is pretty hung up on motifs of doubling and split personalities, but what the film drives home to me is a certain duality I perceive in Aronofsky's storytelling, or at least in the ways I react to his movies. π, Aronofsky's penny-budgeted debut, is a bracing polygon of deranging monomania, surrounding its badly faltering protagonist with a sympathetic but gruffly alarmed mentor, and a retinue of bystanders and acquaintances who might be guiltless or actually malign. In these outlines of story and mood, π is probably the closest pretext for Black Swan among Aronofsky's four preceding features, though monomania has certainly been a constant through all of them: paranoid in the first film, addictive in Requiem for a Dream, medical and romantic in The Fountain, athletic and adrenal, and for the first time self-questioning, in The Wrestler. Certain mainstays persist through the body of work: tight close-ups, often centrally aligned in the frame; backs of people's heads, positioned the same way; other self-consciously symmetrical framings, frequently built around some circular motif in the middle; body trauma; placid or tensely static scenes that suddenly explode with restlessness or terror; Clint Mansell's poetically plangent music; actors who are very unlikely to report home at the end of the day and complain to their partners what a dull time they've been having. An Aronofsky movie would be easy to pick out of a crowd.

But I still see two very different faces of this filmmaker. The bristling, precarious headspace of π implies a propensity toward concepty effect over an impulse to empathize, although not entirely. The film betrays and facilitates at least some bond with the gonzo numerologist Max, and more than that, it's plainly a calling-card picture built on selling nervy, assiduous technique. The hermetic pride in its own construction is easy to forgive, especially since the film is so energetic and unconventional, particularly by the standards of many a Sundance-stamped debut. It isn't until Requiem that the implied persona of the earlier film takes on a fuller contour and prompts, for me, a much more ambivalent response. The formal and technical virtuosity increases, but so does a tendency to lockbox humane connection with the material and the characters, especially with the two men, inside clinical, punishing, and often overstated style. You don't dispute the power of several images, but it's a very cold power. Sure, Requiem's storyline furnishes Aronofsky with a warrant to be so relentless, but the alibi is if anything too simple. He courts extremity and goes out on some laudable limbs with sound and image, but largely by hewing to a theme that risks too little: a) addiction is awful, and b) if something is awful, it's probably a form of addiction. Requiem is the rare film about drugs that could not possibly steer a viewer into wanting to try them, but even as the cast is losing limbs, enduring electroshock, enduring rapacious abuse in the guise of consenting to it, being brutalized for being a black man or else brutalized by a black man, Aronofsky's incessantly marked presence, verging on a fascination with his own boldness of vision, hovers over the whole movie, slashing and inescapable like the vigorously sawed strings of the Kronos Quartet. A smart, dogged, articulate filmmaker, his interviews and director's commentaries can make for fascinating listens, but especially in the case of the first two films, the movies are director's commentaries.

One would not call The Fountain or The Wrestler lightly directed movies. The extravagant yet seemingly depth-averse conceits of the former and the Dardenne-ish visual mannerisms of the latter don't sit well with everybody. Yet how un-Requiem to impose such a strong directorial point of view without assigning or simplifying audience response. The Fountain courts sentimentality and intergalactic mysticism to such a degree that accusations of preposterousness are inevitable, and yet the mourning, unconcealed heart of the narrative, the soundtrack, and Hugh Jackman's central performance make The Fountain, to me, an ultimately braver and more mysterious film than its predecessors. The petri-dish backgrounds standing in for the previously intended but too-expensive F/X panoramas are a genius save, and though they contain their own entrancing patterns, there's an awed delight in order and disorder in The Fountain that you'd never have suspected from the Requiem director. And the film brims with shots, moments, even entire subplots that wouldn't be here if Aronofsky weren't banking entirely on his own candid emotional thrall to what he's assembling, his willingness to flirt with the ridiculous out of sympathy for his characters' tear-stained and furious fervor. The Wrestler, Aronofsky's first film where he receives no writing credit, doesn't interrupt the problem whereby the scripting of his films always straggles behind the proficiency of the direction, but in every other way it's a breath-catcher and a throat-lumper. The movie is even closer to Randy than The Fountain was to Tomas/Tommy/Tom, but it's no less intimate with or protective of Marisa Tomei's not-quite-girlfriend, or Evan Rachel Wood's outraged daughter. For all the consummate technique in the lensing, editing, and design, the bruising, immersive wrestling scenes never ask you to think about where the camera is or who is wielding it, the backstage confabs with fellow athlete-performers and the justly famous deli-counter scenes even less so.

Aronofsky remains, in these two movies, a fastidious stylist and a champion generator of tension, but always, in The Wrestler, in the service of characters who heroically exceed concepts, and in the case of The Fountain, characters who risk turning each other or themselves into concepts: the eternal ideal, the thinker as savior. They catch themselves doing this, and they weep, rage, and scold. Unlike any character in the previous two movies, it's never resolved whether Tom or Randy are doing a "wrong" or a "right" thing by cleaving so tightly to those things in which they most strongly believe, or at which they feel most adept. The Wrestler, especially, poses a question that doesn't feel one-dimensional so much as frustratingly intractable: what do you do when appetite, age, experience, and opportunity all conspire to restrict you to a single vocation, even as it's plainly unsustainable, and even as you betray your own longing (though, sadly, no aptitude) for cultivating other possibilities? I have no categorical preference for realism over abstraction. Thinking about Randy's life from such an array of physical, psychological, biographical, and class-based perspectives invigorates The Wrestler substantially, but so do The Fountain's boldfaced hunts for desperate, quixotic, but tenderly presented fixations, strung across present, long-past, and far-future eras. Randy's flying leap and Tom's stratospheric apotheosis move me nearly equally.

Natalie Portman's high-strung and tremulous Nina takes her own flying leap at the end of Black Swan. To tell you so discloses virtually nothing: even as a viewer of the movie, it wasn't the leap I expected, and she lands totally differently than I thought she would. I was moved not the slightest bit, largely because Aronofsky, rather than taking a bold imaginative spring as he did in The Fountain, or diving bravely into someone else's fully lived-in body and consciousness as in The Wrestler, instead somersaults back into his own Requiem mode, laying on two or three directorial accents where one might have sufficed. He elevates a crippled script without quite getting it off the injured list, putting Nina/Portman through some grueling exertions without quite showing the actress to consummate advantage (she's more of a Leto than a Rourke), and without edifying us in any way about the character beyond the impression she makes in her first few scenes. Even the palette of Black Swan, ingeniously lit though it is, feels like a bald retread of a dominant Requiem template, following a cold-blue route from white into black, such that the occasional streak of red (or, as Sara Goldfarb would insist, of orange) vibrates all the more strongly.

Many of us know by now that Aronofsky's recently admitted to conceiving Black Swan in tandem with The Wrestler. Though the new movie operates very nicely as a proudly shabby shocker for its 100+ minutes, and fans of its schizo-scary flourishes would have lamented the amputation of half or more of Black Swan's running time, there simply isn't any question that Nina, as a character, remains stunted at short-film scale. The ideas built around her aren't inhospitable to supporting a solid genre exercise, but they do give off a certain mildewy smell: i.e., ballet as graceful poetry built on blood-letting discipline. Or, high-wire artistry as portal into dementia. Child prodigies as the offspring of dictators, at home and on the job. Smothering stage mothers as nursers of their own truncated dreams. French impresarios as lascivious cads. Solicitous friends as likely connivers. San Francisco as floating sign of licentious behavior. Sexual defrosting as bottleneck passage into artistic liberation, but also into psychological dismantling, especially if we're talking about sapphism (I believe I mentioned San Francisco), where sapphism nonetheless remains indistinguishable from hallucination.

Some of these nodes simply require a rewrite. I don't see any way that Hershey's character isn't made duller by sticking her with the "I want you to have what was taken from me!" meme, and forcing her to look so often like something that just got dragged out of the water, or ordered up by Toussaud's. I'd love if Mila Kunis's free-wheeling, seductive Lily could hail from a different city. I'm not sure that Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), the prima ballerina deposed by Nina in the lead role of Swan Lake, needs to be quite so public in her response to company manager Thomas's silk-lined snub at a gala reception for donors, or quite so unhinged in her vituperations at darling, lip-biting Nina. But directorial conviction can compensate for a lot, certainly for bigger hurdles than even these represent, and Aronofsky has never once lacked for directorial conviction. It's just that, from where I'm sitting, his mode of chilly virtuosity doesn't do nearly as much for his films as do his gambles on intimacy, tragic optimism, personality, and emotion. Put differently: Requiem for a Dream, his most self-serving movie, is also the movie in which more happens to the characters than happens because of them. Addiction is a pretty threadbare form of agency, and one guaranteed, in any case, to overtake the agent. Neither π's Max nor The Fountain's Tom nor The Wrestler's Randy ends up nearly where he wants, but each is an agent on his own behalf. More than that, each is helped enormously by having Aronofsky's muscular images and formal brio working alongside him, rather than just grinding away at him, in abject passivity. As happens, in large part, to the Requiem cast. And as happens, in large part, to Nina.

Nina's story could easily be a narrative of dogged, Aronofskian striving, allowing his hard-driving meticulousness to open up more and more in her character, her story. He could have directed outward from her gut, instead of entomologically, in wide-angle, mere centimeters away from her face. The final lines of dialogue do suggest a last-ditch attempt to reframe all of Black Swan within the terms of her own ideals. But Nina's passivity isn't just a personal weakness, admonished and baited by Vincent Cassel's leonine artistic director. It's an imposition of the film, which keeps finding ways to stand away from the character, if only by a few inches, and watch her quake and squirm, often in response to what are very likely mirages, though I question whether Nina herself would conceive these particular nightmares. I don't doubt that Aronofsky pities Nina, and regrets that her goals don't come more easily to her, but he never feels obligated to her, never feels hooked into her point of view in any but the most clichéd and obligatory terms. She is a premise on which a hypercompetent but weirdly conventional series of shocks, sound cues, smash-cuts, and sinister fantasies impose themselves. On balance, I'd rather watch a born image-maker flaunt his abilities in a genre project that aspires to say barely anything, rather than a high-horse Warning Movie that self-importantly warns against the catastrophes of addiction. But Black Swan, however enjoyable as a two-hour haunted house, however jazzing to watch even as its narrative logic fritters dangerously away in the fourth quarter, seems both overscaled to its own content and overchallenged to feel something complex for its protagonist. In the first case, why tell this story in such elaborate terms? In the second, why coax Nina just barely out from beneath her mother's thumb, only to pinion her just as harshly underneath Aronofsky's?

We ought to grant that some of what feels disappointingly blunt in Black Swan probably springs from a fair impulse to extrapolate from Swan Lake itself, with its anti-subtle contrasts of white and black, fineness and corruption. Black Swan is, like its source, a fairy tale, though surely that resonance would have shown through just as strongly without so literally costuming everyone in white and black ensembles, without luring us constantly to wonder which among a few select characters is most likely to pull a Paul Bettany, exposed as a projected figment of our troubled protagonist. There are several images, even a few whole scenes in Black Swan that achieve a gripping power in spite of or even apart from such relentless addiction to contrasts. Shoving a bale of comforters and keepsakes down a New York City garbage disposal. A hungry bout of carnal sport, vivid on the ends of giving and receipt. The magnificent cobra-queen hauteur of a Black Swan taking proud laps offstage, knowing she's just killed her routine (and maybe not only her routine). The Lynchian approach of a shaky POV shot, not yet attributed to any character, that advances upon Nina as she dances a diamond-lit dream sequence in the movie's opening movement. Several strong impressions and character beats inside bathroom stalls, as when a ballerina flushes a toilet with her foot, and visually chops off one leg in the process, because she can't risk the germs that might leap to her hand from the chrome lever. Even better: Nina sequestering herself in a stall to telephone Mom with a rare morsel of wonderful news, even if it's also, in a way, terrible news. There is no one else to call, and nowhere else to call from. An earlier collapse into tears on Mom's shoulder, after a split-second attempt at nonchalant poker face, is very nearly as moving. These instants—framed, blocked, and situated for maximum visibility into Nina's spirit, and for symptomatic clues as to the stark borders hemming her inside her own life—feel like they're arising from the same severe but compassionate intelligence that brought Randy the Ram to his daughter's doorstep.

Ultimately, though, Black Swan captures Aronofsky either not trusting that intelligence, or needing a break after two ambitious workouts in close succession, or getting boxed out of filming a more rigorous picture for reasons that come down to wrong-headed casting. In the first case, why doesn't he trust the unsettling palette and tight close-up of Nina riding the morning subway, or why is he in such a rush to sell us on her dangerous fragility, that he overlays this simple insert with so many otherworldly foley effects, to make sure the train ride translates as unmissably creepy to the audience, who I promise is already paying attention? Why spoil the spindly power of a sudden, semi-unwanted kiss between Portman's and Cassel's characters with an exaggerated sound cue that guarantees our understanding that This Kiss Is A Big Deal? Why resort to the visual doublings and splits of characters' images caused by seams or corners in the mirrored wall of the studio—exactly the sort of stock device that any number of first-timers would have grabbed at? The slantwise, Sokurov distortion applied to Cassel's first entrance makes for a great image, and better, it tells us something about Nina's view of him; by contrast, the simultaneous image of two Cassels just as he recites a line about the double-persona of the Swan Queen feels like an overkill of literalism. On that note, why the leopard-skin interior in the purse of Mila Kunis's shady, possibly predatory friend-adversary? Does a stressful, illicit hospital visit really need a "gotcha" collision with an unseen nurse, as an extra flourish of fear, and a very arbitrary form of fear at that? Aren't semi-diegetic droplets of blood enough to disrupt another scene's snapshot of an otherwise restful bath, since we're well apprised by that point that Nina never rests? Does the shock cut to Nina's projected version of herself as her own drowner-tormenter really add anything to the scene that doesn't make it seem a little too New Line Cinema, circa 1986? There are more and more of these sonic accents, rhythmic exaggerations, and visual embellishments as Black Swan continues, treading a spooky but debatably desirable line between keeping us guessing and pandering too much to rude strategies for generating fleeting excitement.

What there's less and less of, meawhile, is dancing. Even the first scene, which initially makes for such an elegant but discomfiting start, betrays signs that, despite the balletic idiom, bodies and their movements will not be trusted to carry the weight they surely ought to. Portman strikes some capable poses and negotiates some adequate turns and pivots in the opening long shots. As soon, though, as she is accosted by the dark wizard of Swan Lake and the choreography gets more complicated, you will note how instantly the camera opts for medium shots and tight close-ups. To be perfectly honest, hard as she is plainly working on behalf of the role, Portman is no more convincing as a ballerina—particularly one who is remotely castable as a lead in the New York City Ballet—than Renée Zellweger was convincing as a headlining revue star in Chicago. But where Rob Marshall, an infinitely more limited director, coaxed out the spunk and ingratiation of the early-00s Zellweger persona so that her Roxie Hart could fly, Black Swan never escapes the stunting effect of Portman's and Kunis's very tentative stabs at polished dancing. Nina ostensibly "improves," and opening night arrives before we know it, despite the implications from extremely rough-looking rehearsals that Swan Lake can't possibly be bowing for another few weeks or months. Consequently, those moments where Nina really misses the mark have to be hilariously overstated in order to distinguish them from Portman's A-for-effort but C-for-ability baseline (yes, a male partner flat-out drops her on stage). She sails to a pinnacle of her young career that is a pure conceit of the writing, unearned by anything we witness. Foley and music get ramped up to the extreme to scare, seduce, unsettle, and energize us, because Swan Lake itself, despite locking the whole movie into its stark black/white dichotomies, is never, ever able to move the story along on its own terms. The handheld camerawork is often needlessly jostled, almost certainly because these herky-jerky movements cover up for the actress's terpsichorean shortcomings. I pined for Aronofsky to have cast a real ballerina and used his proven gifts at eliciting performance so as to enable this dancer to act. Tara Birtwhistle, so expressive, athletic, but poignantly breakable in Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, proves that such creatures do exist.

I don't mean to come down too hard on Portman herself. She's always struck me as an actress with evident limitations, but she has her moments here, and she at least struggles valiantly against her own ceilings, not least by getting herself cast in a role that does something useful with her screen persona's odd combination of steeliness, flatness, fragility, perspicacity, standoffishness, and vestigial little-girlishness. Again, with less screen time, she might have seemed more revelatory, the way Jennifer Connelly does in Requiem. In fact Connelly, as Hubert Selby's Marion, shows us a White Swan achieving her Black Swan potential much more fully than Portman's Nina ever does in this movie. But it matters that, no matter how rigorously she trained, she can't deliver in the major aesthetic register that the script and the character most require her to. So, perhaps, no wonder Aronofsky refuses to base the film in the movements of the actors' bodies, as one could fairly expect any dance movie as well as a lot of horror movies to do. But even at that, why fill Portman's headspace, so clearly ready to be tilled with ambitious ideas, with shock cuts, mirror stunts, smashed fingers, strobe lights, CGI, and "sweet girl"/dark bird binarisms?

I'm not disputing that Black Swan is compelling, spooky, and gorgeously lensed. Super 16 has rarely looked so exquisite in the contemporary multiplex as it does witin the elegant, light-sensitive, and depth-responsive images that Matthew Libatique generates with his Arriflex. But what Black Swan finally is, to my mounting chagrin, is Aronofsky's showy, extended riff on a notion of Nina's distress, itself derived from an even more abstract idea of Nina's abilities and aspirations. Or maybe, Nina's distress is itself a riff on Aronofsky's abilities. Her aspirations never feel plausibly within the character's or the interpreter's reach. By contrast, the director's aspirations, for the first time in his career, feel notably minuscule with respect to his proven capabilities. I'd have liked Black Swan just fine, and been intrigued to see a follow-up, if this had been Aronofsky's third movie. After the last two, whatever their blemishes, Black Swan feels outré but not ambitious, effective but not well-earned, eager to entertain us but tentative, at best, about soliciting our feelings. It's too crazy and proudly unhinged to come across as a complacent movie, but like this whole review, that's a comment on Aronofsky as much as on Black Swan. Our most gifted filmmakers can't help being unusual even when they're working at semi-caliber. They can still emit a considerable charge even when they're plainly cutting corners. Grade: B–


VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
Black Swan has certainly got the festival set talking, debating, and frequently raving, so it's shaping up as a bonafide litmus test. The movies need more of these, so it's possible that the movie will seem only more valuable once it actually opens, and we can gauge the scale of whatever ripples it makes in the culture. But as much as I'd like to reward Aronofsky for going out on the limb of a jagged, fragmented movie where the appearance/reality divide is repeatedly crossed, I hope I've made clear that many of his strategies for making those crosses seem stale and fleeting—in many ways beneath him. Certain moments, like a surprise confrontation with a room full of chattering, lolling-tongued paintings, seem especially threadbare and non-specific to this character, and Portman is stuck responding with completely stock screams. Sometimes Black Swan feels interestingly brazen, even when it's not working; at other times, it emanates a twinge of desperation, even when the scare tactics click. I had expected a "4" or a "5" here no matter how much I liked the movie, but in some ways the biggest problem with this bonkers exercise is that, for all its oddness, it doesn't lay more on the line.

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Darren Aronofsky
Best Actress: Natalie Portman
Best Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Best Film Editing: Andrew Weisblum

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Darren Aronofsky
Best Actress (Drama): Natalie Portman
Best Supporting Actress: Mila Kunis

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Cinematography (Matthew Libatique)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Cinematography
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Portman); Best Film Editing (Andrew Weisblum)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Actress (Portman)

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