A New York City ballerina gets the lead in “Swan Lake.” It’s what she, or maybe her mother, has always wanted. What she’s been waiting for, working for. It will be a challenge. It has to be perfect.
Since the movie itself takes pains to explain the plot and themes of “Swan Lake” several times, somehow without ever really seeming to care about them, we can avoid that here. Suffice to say it’s a dual role, and the ballerina’s lecherous director worries that she’s only good for half of it. So he keeps giving her variations on the same note: “Forget about control, Nina. I want to see passion!” Or: “Let go!” Upon returning to the tiny pink chamber of her stunted-childhood bedroom, deep within the wicker-and-empty-bird-cage-intensive cloister of mother’s apartment, her first homework assignment is to masturbate. Obviously, madness awaits.
That’s why everybody keeps calling “Black Swan” a “psychosexual thriller.” It’s big on going insane and grabbing crotches. It has three writers — Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin — but credit for the impression it makes will rightly go to director Darren Aronofsky. The main thing — the only thing — is the forcefulness of the presentation, with a central character as ruthlessly pared down to the sinewy, slightly grotesque essence as is the actor portraying her. This is clearly a Natalie Portman apotheosis — her beauty pulled so taut that the oblique vanity of desperation for approval can be seen poking through from underneath. In the best, most unsettling moment, she calls home from a bathroom stall, her face streaming tears and twisted up in a rictus of confused catharsis: “He picked me, Mommy!”
Portman playing sexual naivete is peculiar. On the one hand, puh-lease. On the other, her portrayals of sexual wisdom have also seemed peculiar — and maybe even, well, naive. So there’s a frisson there, and Aronofsky is clever to steer his movie straight into it. But what other choice did he have? It’s not like he really wanted to make a film about ballet.
There are other dancers with other qualities: confidante/rival Mila Kunis, displaced predecessor Winona Ryder, some other girl who’s shown to matter at first but then falls out of narrative favor, and of course severe stage-mom Barbara Hershey. Like Portman, they’re all pros, undaunted by the increasingly overwhelming aura of reductive misogyny. And there is Vincent Cassel as the aforementioned lecherous director and willing deliverer of obvious, tedious dialogue. Strange that “Black Swan” thinks it needs so much explanatory talk, given all the overblown emoting and swirling camera moves, which are what it’s really about anyway.
Or maybe not strange, given Aronofsky’s tin ear. Certainly he appreciates Tchaikovsky as a source of morbid, melancholic and sometimes funny gag cues, and maybe even as a composer of movie-friendly music bearing some melodic similarity to John Williams’ score for “Star Wars.” Similarly, Aronofsky appreciates dance as a vessel for physicalizing tormented inner states, even if otherwise seeming at a loss about how to show bodies in motion unless a special effect is involved. He does, however, have a knack for luring brittle, ropy women into masochistic lesbian-tending situations (see also “Requiem for a Dream”), and for ending movies with a public, possibly fatal final leap (see also “The Wrestler”).
OK, um, great. Next, could we forget about passion and maybe see some control?