Film Review: Black Swan

More horror than ballet film, in every sense of the word.

From her first onscreen appearance in Black Swan as the ferociously ambitious ballerina Nina, Natalie Portman, always a totally committed, forceful actress, attacks the role with the sorrowful intensity of a handmaiden to high art akin to Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Nina is desperate to play the double lead of White and Black Swan in Swan Lake, and must prove her mettle to her company's demanding, horny director (Vincent Cassel); her ultimate stage mom, herself a failed ballerina (a weirdly smoothed and surgically tightened Barbara Hershey), and a variety of interchangeably pouty-faced, jealous fellow dancers, led by her main nemesis, the conniving Lily (Mila Kunis). Nina's obsession drives her to the brink of insanity and then beyond, making rehearsal studio and the stage itself into the bloodiest of battlegrounds.

I freely admit to being a sucker for ballet movies, whether the incandescently immortal The Red Shoes, the engaging 1975 BBC adaptation of Noel Streatfield's classic Ballet Shoes, the guilty-pleasure soapiness of The Turning Point or even the overripe Ben Hecht-scripted lunacy of Specter of the Rose. I was, therefore, keenly looking forward to Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan—and all the more disappointed by the garish farrago that it is. Stereotypes are actually sometimes accurate, and the target audience for ballet itself has always been women and gay men. On the basis of this and Robert Altman's The Company (maybe his worst film), it would seem that heterosexual males' main interest in the genre would be gratuitously incorrect female nudity (ballerinas are not showgirls), hints of lesbianism, and All About Eve-like backstage bitchery inevitably exploding into salacious catfighting. To this tired formula, Aronofsky also adds the kind of physicalized torture he featured in The Wrestler, and his film is rife with excruciating close-ups of bloody feet, torn flesh and freakishly deformed muscles. Any true sense of art, grace or beauty in the form is strictly lacking, and, to paraphrase a song from A Chorus Line, here "Everything is Ugly at the Ballet."

Your expectations seriously lowered, you’d think this might at least work as a trashily enjoyable fantasy of the dance world, but Aronofsky wrongheadedly tries to combine the elements of a horror film with his ever-pretentious aspirations, resulting in an over-the-top mess whose mounting absurdity and violence become a thorough audience punishment. (You just give in and guffaw at the grimly serious ridiculousness of it all.) Untold sympathy goes out to poor Portman, who obviously went through extreme mental and physical exertion—even humiliation—for such a worthlessly exploitative end; her character never develops beyond incessant suffering and Aronofsky, with three screenwriters, hasn't even convincingly laid the requisite framework for this mousy girl's devastating Eve Harrington ambition. What he is tellingly more interested in are her scenes of masturbation and lesbian oral sex.

The characters are, uniformly, lurid cartoons, from Cassel's maestro (a performance which could be deemed high camp in more fun circumstances) to Hershey's one-note, controlling gorgon of a mother out of Stephen King and Kunis as the most clichéd predatory lesbian in screen history (and that's really saying something). Winona Ryder pops up in that classically essential role of the faded, replaced star, and momentarily gives the film a jolt of true passion, with an all-out vulgar Liz Taylor intensity. As for the ballet scenes themselves, here Aronofsky really shows his clueless ham hand with the form, as you come away with no sense of any real choreography: His staged Swan Lake looks as cheap as any suburban community theatre production.