Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” is a movie obsessed with doubles: mothers and daughters, mentors and protégés, teachers and students, mirrors and reality, art and life, layering on the tropes thicker than Natalie Portman’s make up.
Portman plays Nina Sayers, a timid and exact ballerina who is perfect for the white swan part in “Swan Lake.” However, because of the director’s efforts to make the classic a bit more avant-garde, she must also dance the black swan character, which in this movie becomes a euphemism for sex, violence and sexy violence.
Like Usher, the company head played by Vincent Cassel needs “A lady in the street and a freak in the bed.”
“Ay ken see you as ze lady in ze street, Nina,” he chastises her over and over, “but I also need ze freak in ze bed. Attack it! Attack it!”
The white swan is the good girl, the virginal daughter, the Taylor Swift of ballet. The white swan of this review would appreciate the fabulous costumes, cinematography, performances and layers of allusion that mark “Black Swan” as good art. But midway through the film the titular and temperamental black swan takes charge of Nina. Gaudy, repetitive and entertainingly absurd, if “Black Swan” had a double it would probably be “Showgirls.”
Like Nomi and Cristal in “Showgirls,” Nina and rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) screw the boss, screw each other (In a dream, not in “real” life. Relax, everyone) and screw each other over in pursuit of the lead role. Winona Ryder occasionally creaks onscreen as the washed-up former star. A withered 30-something in gaudy eye make-up, she spits, “Did you suck his cock?” at Sayers like this is Caesar’s Palace, not the Lincoln Center.
The supernatural elements of “Black Swan” obfuscate the familiar plot. They start out creepy but subtle, with the eyes of Nina’s mother’s crooked portraits following her like Aronofsky’s unsettling hand-held tracking shots, and culminate in the impressively ludicrous; all bloody feathers and red eyes.
Mysteriously, Nina seems to actually turn into a swan in a bit of heavy-handed symbolism. Presumably it is not because she is an Animagus.
Ballet, like this film, is painful and repetitive. Those drawn to it as pervy moths to the lesbian Natalie Portman flame will be disappointed to find two hours of abrasions, sprains and sexual humiliation like a toned-down torture-porn flick with a classical soundtrack. Apparently being a ballet dancer is actually quite similar to Guantanamo Bay; it all takes place in windowless rooms, although it is doubtful that Gitmo employs the creepy French director.
Like a china doll, Nina lives surrounded by pink fluffy things, wears only the most delicate fabrics and appears at all times on the verge of fracturing a limb or breaking down into tears. She fulfills the horror film edict of the woman unable to question male rules, pleading with Cassel’s authority figure to, “Please believe me,” like Rosemary in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Unlike Rosemary, it is all in her head. At least “Showgirls” kept us in the dark as to how for real it was. The big reveal of “Black Swan” feels like a crashing cop-out.
Ultimately the overall message of “Black Swan” is that you have to sacrifice your body, trade sexual favors, hallucinate and stab Winona Ryder in the face with a nail file in order to create great art.
Or, as Cristal Connors summed it up in “Showgirls,” “If someone gets in your way, step on ‘em. If you’re the only one left standing there, they hire you.”
Frankly, I find the trite philosophy of other dance films more appealing. I’d rather see a scene in which Nina turns on her demonic mother and says, “No mom, this is your dream!” before skipping town with her ethnic minority boyfriend to fuse ballet with street dance as no one has ever thought to do before. Maybe she’ll be no Picasso, but at least she’ll get out intact.
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