Dance Dance Revulsion: Black Swan

FILM, In Cinemas

Darren Aronofsky hasn’t forgotten how to whip us into a frenzy; his latest, Black Swan, is propelled by the same nauseating intensity of Requiem for a Dream, and, like that pompous drug odyssey, presents a compelling case for its audience to keep watching, no matter how ghastly it may be as a piece of moviemaking. It is a film about ballet, only crafted with a sledgehammer, and can be enjoyed strictly on those terms; purists either too precious about the integrity of “Swan Lake”, or spoilt for choice by the spate of big screen ballet appreciations (La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, Mao’s Last Dancer, The Red Shoes restoration) needn’t subscribe. But it is also a film full of itself, whose swollen vision is synchronized to the brilliant assholery of Thomas Leroy, the story’s requisite Svengali. Played by the intimidating Vincent Cassel—a beastly, heterosexualised choreographer who presides over the ballet company at the centre of the film—the role is a disturbing proxy for Aronofsky. The character is oversexed and domineering, much like the director’s style; plus, he also treats women like shit. If not already for the typecast ballerinas, all bitchy females out to stab each other in the back, or the gratuitous sexual fantasies projected onto lead actress Natalie Portman, in turn facilitated by Cassel’s leering artistic director, one might be put-off Black Swan for its plain misogyny. Indeed, on the basis of its facile worldview—that women are irrational, high-strung, emotional beings incapable of self-control—the film can be considered simplistic and defunct. As a horror movie, it is not alone in its gaze. Where it differs from, say, a Dario Argento giallo, is that it isn’t a lot of fun to watch.

Black Swan isn’t a revenge movie either—a cathartic plot device it perhaps would’ve benefited from. Portman’s prima ballerina, Nina, never makes plans to maim Thomas, despite his sexual aggressions; in fact, notwithstanding several lewd advances, she throws herself at him during the film’s dizzying climax, where the production of “Swan Lake” comes to a head. Rather, she’s at war with herself, and ostensibly, a rival dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis)—a clumsy split personality inserted into the narrative, just in case you didn’t catch its thematic duality the first time around. So while Tchaikovsky’s black and white swans, parts both played by Nina, manifest as a sinister doppelganger, she’s also stalked by Lily, who may or may not be out to sabotage her performance and steal the limelight. This internal/external conflict might have been absorbing had Nina something to lose, something to fall from, however she’s already half way there from the outset: paranoid her fellow dancers are out to ruin her during rehearsals; driven insane by an overbearing, demented mother at home (Barbara Hershey, in an unflattering psycho-biddy cameo). Overstuffed with hysterical, good-for-nothing women, the film is mean-spirited to the extreme of casting Winona Ryder as the troupe’s expired star, too wrinkly and unstable to remain the face of a prestigious New York ballet company. (Read: mainstream Hollywood movie.) Meanwhile, waving his hands in the background, impervious to all the melodrama, is Thomas—his conquests, whether chalked up on the dance floor, or in the bedroom, are spread before us like a catalogue of jealous ex-lovers.

Cassel is the most entertaining player in Black Swan, though such campy one-liners as, “I’ve got a little homework assignment for you—go home and touch yourself,” and, “That was me seducing you; it needs to be the other way around,” while hilarious, are little more than blunt cues for Portman get her kit off, instructed by Aronofsky through his brutish on-screen double. The two racy instances of note—Portman masturbating in bed, followed by Kunis going down on her—wouldn’t rate a mention if they weren’t so ridiculous, conceived, it seems, from the imagination of a horny teenage boy. Ham-fisted sex scenes as they are, they’re unwatchable because they’re delivered with serious intent. Black Swan would’ve made a fine exploitation film—albeit, a typically broad and offensive one—if Aronofsky wasn’t so cocksure as a filmmaker. The frantic camera work and overwrought sound design combine well enough to assault and disorientate the viewer, but it is as good as lurid cosmetics—the formalism is still too controlled, too synthetic, too self-congratulatory. Ultimately, Aronofsky has chosen to ignore the coaching of his opposite, Thomas: to “loosen up” and “live a little.” So has Portman, whose brave and generally praiseworthy performance is, in the end, strained and frigid, like the Nina of old. All rumpled forehead and muscular contortions, there’s simply too much method to her madness. Andzej Zulawski and Isabelle Adjani, for one, have gone to places Aronofsky and Portman wouldn’t dare; their 1981 freak-out, Possession, a genuinely outré splatter movie with a taste for, among other things, mutilation and female psychosis. Now there’s a lesson in letting go.

Dir. Darren Aronofsky,
USA, 2010; 108 minutes
Featuring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder.
Filed under: FILM, In Cinemas

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.