“Oscar bait!” some have said. “Dazzling!” Who are they talking about? What planet have they come from? Did they see the same Black Swan that I did? — the new film by Darren Aronofsky, whose past work (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) skates the same masochistic ice as does his latest study of physical and psychological abuse. THAT Black Swan? If so, they must be in the employ of Natalie Portman’s publicist.
If Oscars were given for eye makeup, neck tendons, and eyebrows knitted into clichés, then yes, Natalie Portman would win by a landslide. But after the first fifteen minutes of Portman’s mono-dimensional agonizing, her irritating retreat into a short list of mannerisms, I was ready to scream.
Let’s move on. I wanted to love, to adore, to grovel at the feet of this film. Anything ballet, I’m there. And I loved Aronofsky’s past explorations of extreme endurance and self-mutilation. But little did I expect the multi-genre mess that would emerge from the sumptuous tale of dual personalities and two swans, one light, the other dark, that has captivated romance-lovers for a century.
The movie’s concept is clever. One young woman whose entire life (and I mean every itty bitty moment of it) is a sacrifice to ballet is finally given the chance to star in Swan Lake. Her ballet master, played with hauteur and sexiness by Vincent Cassel, is convinced that young Nina (Portman) can ace the part of Odile, the white swan. But he’s not as sure she has the sense of danger or abandon required to dance Odette, the dark twin. Let’s just say that she has some sexual homework to do. But meanwhile, there are other “dark twins,” döppelgangers and shadow selves that stalk the anorexic, perfection-obsessed young dancer. Are they real? Or are they Nina’s obsessive-compulsive delusions? Aronofsky wants it both ways, and more.
Add yet another evil twin, in the form of Nina’s controlling mother, a former dancer, played with terse malevolence by Barbare Hershey, and you have the time-honored recipe for soup opera.
Melodramatic spice is provided by Winona Ryder (who could still give lessons in beautiful to Portman), as the recently ousted former prima ballerina, and Mila Kunis as the hot new dancer determined to steal Nina’s moment in the spotlight.
Not content to plunge us into the midst of the mind-numbing, body-mutilating work of a professional dancer, or into one woman’s ultimate confrontation with her own worst nightmares, Aronofsky decides to turn Black Swan into a gothic horror romance psycho-thriller with gratuitous sex, drugs and frankly the only thing missing from this one mascara-intensive study is Bette Davis as Baby Jane. ETA Hoffmann meets Stephen King.
The Oscar should go to Black Swan‘s cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, whose camera swirls and pirouettes in ecstatic communion with the dancers on the stage, forcing us to feel our way inside the music, the muscles, the high anxiety of the fulfillment of years of agonizing practice, practice, practice.
No matter what I say, I know you’re gonna go see it. Just be prepared to jump out of your seat a few times. Not for the squeamish, but definitely for those who love dance.