Saturday, December 4, 2010

Not So Grand Guignol

Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman
Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Opened December 3, 2010

A cheesy thriller set in the cutthroat world of professional ballet, Black Swan centers on Nina, a rising young dancer in the corps chosen as the lead in a new staging of the perennial Swan Lake. The na├»ve, introverted Nina—who lives at home with a domineering mother, a failed ballerina in her own right—makes waves at the ballet company, especially when she accidentally sees Beth, the current reigning diva, trashing her dressing room after finding out that she’s retiring at the end of the season. And let’s not forget Lily, the sexy, passionate new dancer from San Francisco who coincidentally has a large tattoo of wings on her back, and quickly becomes Nina’s chief rival.

Running the company is Robert, a ruthless Frenchman who plucks Nina from the corps but tells her flatly that although she makes a dynamic white swan, her virginal sensibility doesn’t mesh with the black swan, so she needs to get a handle on her own sexuality: and boy, does she, waking one morning to masturbate after remembering that Robert told her that touching herself would help her prepare for the role. Later, Nina and Lily lip-lock and a lot more in one of the least erotic lesbian scenes in movie history.

For the first, oh, 10 minutes or so, Black Swan promises to be a smart if unsubtle psychological study about an artist under pressure. But that’s just smoke and mirrors, as director Darren Aronofsky fills the screen with repetitive heavy-handed symbolism, visualized by his heaving and spinning camera: Nina’s threatening doppelgangers pop up throughout, and—in a climax that must be seen to be disbelieved—a broken mirror and buckets of blood fill Nina’s dressing room during the first Swan Lake performance. (The script has three writers listed, never a good sign, and indeed it’s a patchwork that’s riddled with countless plot holes and laughably plastic characterizations.)

Eschewing subtlety for Grand Guignol is only one part of Black Swan’s problem. Aronofsky and his writers simply stop trying after awhile, throwing whatever they can onto the wall to see what will stick. This is a simplistically black and white view of a world full of swans and ballet dancers, and the hallucinations that Nina begins seeing (herself, her mother, Beth, even Lily) morph, during the big drink-and-drug-induced club sequence, into...more doppelgangers. It’s impossible to sustain this level of hysteria without succumbing to overkill, unless you’re, say, Roman Polanski of Repulsion and The Tenant, which Aronofsky decidedly isn’t.

Aronofsky also borrows heavily from Cronenberg (the fetishized skin and body parts, even the growths emerging from Nina’s body) and Dario Argento, whose spirit presides over the final, and entirely ridiculous, half-hour. The constantly roving camera shrewdly ensures that actual dancing isn’t the point, but just another way to visualize Nina’s madness. A few good ideas are outstripped by several horrible ones, and the result is an incoherent jumble that‘s typified by Clint Mansell’s score, which batters Tchaikovsky’s lovely music into submission and needlessly turns up the volume in desperation, hoping to conjure horror where none exists.

Natalie Portman has gotten deserved plaudits for her Nina, which walks a thin line between mama’s girl and true psychosis. Her dancing is impressively visceral: whether she’s capable of placing Swan Lake on her shoulders is immaterial. Nina’s emotions, raw throughout, remain on the surface, and Aronofsky’s ostentatious handling of the material encourages Portman to overact. But she does the exact opposite, which makes her characterization all the more compelling—any sympathy we have for Nina comes entirely from the actress, not her director or writers. Her brief scene on the phone telling her mother that she was picked for the lead role is worth a dozen Oscars by itself.

In this largely constricted, insular world, Mila Kunis’ Lily is a refreshing change from the solipsism on display, although it’s doubtful that she would have been hired by such a prominent ballet company with those large tattooed wings on her back—at the very least they’d make sure she covered them up. Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder have little to do in the cardboard roles of stage mother and falling diva, while poor Vincent Cassel looks ready to burst into laughter whenever repeating variations on the same lines of dialogue so that even the most dimwitted audience member gets the point that Nina and Lily are Apollo and Dionysus in tutus.

However, I’d hate to put any other ideas into Aronofsky’s head.

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