By Scott Marks | SDUN Film Critic
People are comparing “Black Swan” to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s towering masterwork “The Red Shoes,” but in truth this grand guignol plays more like “All About Baby Jane” in spiked toe shoes.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a mentally unstable featured dancer still living under the roof (and control) of a stage mother dearest (Barbara Hershey). She is intensely dedicated to her craft, but the sheltered young woman lacks certain social graces and possesses a somewhat childlike demeanor. (She giggles like a babe at the sight of a freshly halved grapefruit and can‘t wait to call “mommy“ when good news arrives.) It’s clear that Nina would have no problem dancing the part of the pure White Swan (Dance it? She lives it!), but artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, once again bringing great poise to an arrogant debaucher) is having second thoughts as to whether or not she possess the sensuality required to pull off her evil twin, the Black Swan.
It’s a competitive environment in which to create art. Nina first spies Beth Macintyre (Wynona Ryder)—a ballerina past her prima whose return to the company will only heighten backstage melodrama, not ticket sales—throwing a tantrum in her dressing room. (Wait until Beth discovers that Thomas pegged Nina as her replacement.) Mila Kunis (in the Eve Harrington role) plays Lily, a backstabbing new hire already eager to overthrow this season’s replacement.
In no time Nina is warding off all sorts of sexual advances. Thomas authorizes a masturbatory “homework assignment.” During an impromptu visit to the little girl’s room, Nina makes for the door the moment Lily removes her panties and offers the fallow fawn a line of coke. Luckily, she doesn’t wallow in her celibacy for too long and all of the soft-core sex, melted mascara and dermatological deliriums on display are calculated to put butts in seats. How else are you going to convince contemporary audiences to watch a movie about ballet?
“The Wrestler,” Aronofsky’s most grounded, linear work to date due in large part to screenwriter Robert Siegel’s unassailable plotting, accorded the otherwise meretricious metteur en scène a brief descent into urban realism. “Black Swan” marks a speedy return to the abstruse sexual perversity for which Aronofsky is best known. “Requiem for a Dream” took salacious delight in “coupling” Jennifer Connelly with a comely bit player. This time the director plies his work with more gratuitous girl-on-girl action and for a change the daring explicitness could swing Oscar voters in the direction of Ms. Portman‘s powerhouse performance.
The gritty realism and leisure pace of “The Wrestler’s” comeback kid Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s return to the ring is nowhere in sight. In its place we find frenetic frames oozing style. From a multi-character dialog scene to the warped reflection of Thomas’ entrance to the rehearsal hall, Aronofsky expeditiously establishes his use of highly reflective surfaces (and doppelgangers) as narrative tool. At times mirrors and what they echo are given equal weight. He captures the dance sequences in lyrical, freeform camera movements that are visually enticing, but is it art?
Aronofsky has been quoted as saying, “To me, watching a movie is like going to an amusement park. My worst fear is making a film that people don’t think is a good ride.” If you go in expecting nothing more than a well made, entertaining, over-the-top genre picture you will probably walk away pleased. It’s when academic types start insisting that there is more than flesh beneath the “Swan’s” feathers that has me worried.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Wynona Ryder and Barbara Hershey