starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey
screenplay by Andres Heinz and Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin
directed by Darren Aronofsky
by Walter Chaw She's incapable of reaching climax throughout the first hour of Black Swan, but then the floodgates open in the most Keatsian work in Darren Aronofsky's growing portfolio of Romanticist explorations. Call it a ballet of the consummation sublime, the idea that once achieved, the immediate disappointment and disgust for the act overwhelms the sexual release of the moment before--and watch Black Swan in a lovelorn double-feature with Jane Campion's Bright Star for the full impact of Aronofsky's achievement here. As a thriller, Black Swan doesn't do much more than graft a few phantom frames onto the periphery of Jean Benoit-Levy's Ballerina, Altman's The Company, or Powell/Pressburger's The Red Shoes--but note how the picture owes its creepy intensity to the sort of social satire-through-body horror popularized by David Cronenberg. (Though it's Cronenberg as fever dream rather than as insectile chill.) Note, too, how Natalie Portman finally finds herself the actor she was always considered to be in a role that breaks her legs and feet, forces her to masturbate and self-mutilate, and in the end transforms her into the very effigy of the absolute, voracious, consumptive nature of creation. In its nasty sexual biology, it's the evocation of the secret ending to Charlotte's Web--the off-stage fucking, and cannibalism, and matricide, and all that hunger prettified into a phrase artfully turned.
Nina (Portman) has just been named prima ballerina in a new New York City Ballet production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" by brilliant, skeezy director Thomas (Vincent Cassel). The pressure to perform the carnal shadow of the Swan Queen (the titular Black Swan), however, roils her frigidity, her arrested relationship with a castrating mother (Barbara Hershey), her adoration of predecessor Beth (Winona Ryder), and her love/hate complication with new company dancer Lily (Mila Kunis). The act of creation, then, is the inciting factor in Nina's sexual maturation and her need to destroy her mother figure/s in favour of a more appropriate mate choice. She needs to get laid, in other words, in order to give birth, literally or figuratively, and her inability to engage in the flesh leads to a few unnatural magnifications and eruptions. It's Aronofsky marrying his The Wrestler--with all its too, too intimate violations in sacrifice at the altar of craft--with the hallucinatory kineticism of Requiem for a Dream and the pinpoint, obsessive Romanticism of The Fountain. And while The Fountain remains probably my favourite Aronofsky picture, Black Swan matches it in the breadth of its ambition. The one questions the morality of immortality and the essential solipsism of everlasting love, the other the direct implication of the idea of liebestraum, sex and birth/love and death, as the exact, bloody life cycle of the artist engaged in the creation of art.
I love how Aronofsky has Nina in constant tension against doppelgängers and shades; how mirrors become sinister not just for the reflections of her disintegration, but as a sly/unforgiving light cast on a skeletal Portman and the lengths to which perfection strains these young women's bodies to breaking. (Marry it to a moment when Portman's diaphragm is realigned, another where her toenail splits--both almost impossible to watch.) Nina's ritualistic preparation of her shoes like a warrior forging weapons complements the way that mother's art-room walls are plastered with the same sketch of Nina as well as a Rorschach print in Thomas's loft, suggesting that what seems unpracticed is most often the product of obsessive repetition and an innate desire to pull any aching symmetry from chaos. Yet while Black Swan's metaphors live in the dichotomies they present, the picture retains a certain elegance in its absolute refusal to draw its characters in the same polarities. At first the typical pageant mom, Nina's mother evolves into a creature so complex (isn't she actually the good mother in the third act?) that a late image of her (real or imagined), rapt in the ballet's audience, is the one that lingers; and Lily, a perfect fit at last for Kunis's sexy gamine, turns out in the end to be no less the nemesis for being kind of a nice girl. Even snarling Beth (and Ryder is effective more for who she was than for the performance she gives) is the victim of the most atrocious violations in a film about them, and not even she deserves that.
At the end, Black Swan is what it is because it causes the audience to examine its own hunger for this communion between spectator and object of desire. How we want--in our art, our blood sport, our art that is hidden blood sport--our pound of flesh from entertainers and reward them by demanding an encore. It's already entered lore that Portman trained (obsessively, yes) for an entire year to play this part of emaciated, disturbed acolyte to the new flesh (and haven't we heard similar about De Niro, Brando, lately Christian Bale?), and why if not to drink deep from this pool of mortification of the self in the name of our diversion? Aronofsky's films are fascinating because even as they demand suture with their empathy, they compel a deeper conversation about the ethics of our spectatorship. When Nina, at the end of the affair, with a flower opening on her stomach like a bloody vagina (caused by a mirror, no less, witnessed by a shade), declares herself the very model of perfection and Aronofsky fades to white against a wall of adoration, it's difficult to see Black Swan as anything other than this perfect little essay on the high cost of good art on the people who engage in it. And we want more. Originally published: December 3, 2010.