'Black Swan' Soars
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Black Swan" is a delirious, practically giddy thriller that flirts with the metaphysical even while it relentlessly ratchets up its prime directive, which is to be a nonstop audience stress test. The latest film from maverick virtuoso director Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler," "Requiem for a Dream") choreographs some new moves for several familiar romantic-with-a-capital-"R" themes.
Set in the highbrow but cutthroat world of classical dance in New York, "Black Swan" tells you that it is, in a sense, nothing new, even as it announces that it intends to break some molds. This should be pretty clear to all but the dimmest moviegoer when the dance impresario Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel, announces to his troupe that he's kicking off his company's latest season with a production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." Anticipating the "are you kidding?" protests -- indeed, pretty much hearing them already -- Cassel's supremely confident dance master shrugs. "Done to death, I know. But not like this." Interesting choice of words, "done to death." And as for "not like this"? Well, he ain't just whistling Dixie. Neither is Aronofsky.
Leroy's grand inspiration for his new "Swan Lake" is to have the virginal tragic swan princess and the sleek, seductive black swan danced by the same ballerina, and, much to the young lady's surprise, he picks the virtuous, sheltered and technically impeccable Nina (Natalie Portman) for the roles. How sheltered is Nina? Sheltered enough that, approaching her mid-20s, she still lives with her artist mom (Barbara Hershey), a failed, or is it retired, dancer herself. Right off the bat, the audience has to question whether Leroy really sees something in her, or wants something -- the usual thing, that would be -- from her. "Perfection is not just about control," he counsels her, and she demonstrates that she can give up control -- or is that assert control? -- when she gives him a definite bite on the lip as he tries to steal a kiss from her. He responds by giving Nina her dream part as reward for the hint at her darker side.
Once she's got the part, or parts, the struggle of creation begins. As if rehearsals were not trying enough, Nina also has to deal with all manner of finger and toenail trauma (it's been a while since a mainstream film milked so much audience anxiety out of potentially torn cuticles) and what appears to be an alternate Nina dogging her steps. Is this a genuine doppelganger, or the looser, hipper, suspiciously maybe over-friendly newbie of the ballet company, sassy San Franciscan Lily (Mila Kunis)? And what is it with Nina's obsession with the now-washed-up prima ballerina of the company, Beth (Winona Ryder), whose knickknacks Nina keeps stealing and making talismans of? A hallucinatory nightclub scene that culminates in an unsettling and kind of sickly hilarious depiction of self-love ratchets up the film's double theme by a factor of one (is "trebleganger" a real term?), making the madness all the more hectic. Of all the varied offstage pas de deux that Nina enacts (it is not an accident that pretty much all of her male partners in the film are treated as afterthoughts), the one that builds the most peculiar intensity is with her mother. At first Hershey's role seems like one of those gifts that a name actress of a certain age can just phone in, but with every scene she ratchets up the power incrementally, building a sacred monster of monumental proportions. As for Portman herself, the Oscar talk isn't just hype; this isn't merely a performance but a transformation. Most impressive is her physicality. Toned to the point of near-emaciation, she nevertheless radiates a certain voluptuousness that the character herself has no idea of. One of the ironies of her self-loathing is the fact that she's the girl that everyone wants.
All the while, director Aronofsky expertly toggles between the faux-realistic (his handheld camera often stalking Nina from behind, just as he did with Mickey Rourke in his prior film "The Wrestler"; the shot is pretty common in the gritty dramas by the Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) and utterly fantastic (the wandering eyes of Nina's mother's self-portraits are particularly striking effects early on).
The mere prospect of a film that in many senses crosses Powell and Pressburger's "The Red Shoes" with Roman Polanski's "The Tenant" is certainly enough to raise an eyebrow, as the very notion screams potential camp classic in this day and age. Add to that the fact that a new generation of strainingly know-somethingish would-be film buffs seems to believe that the theme of the double in literature and cinema only dates back as far as "Fight Club," and you've got a movie that, whether it likes it or not, is practically begging to be misunderstood and/or laughed at. Good for some of us, then, that Aronofsky's got enough faith in his instincts, and enough filmmaking talent, to risk ridiculousness, and achieve a not ingenuous sublimity as a result. Because as serious as "Black Swan" is, it is hardly unaware of the borders of absurdity that it dances around, and over; in fact, its very reason for being seems to be to do precisely that. It may well be that some of the film's more derisive detractors are not really entirely certain of what they're laughing at, and whether or not the director isn't laughing as well, for some reason.
Which might ultimately be beside the point, in any event. Should the picture capture the imagination of a large audience, which I believe it should, you will no doubt be hearing and reading a lot of debate over what it says, or what it tries to say: about whether the film is an unreal shocker that erects an elaborate metaphor about the act of creation; about how much of what happens in the film is "real" or real, or unreal, or what. Which is all well and good and as it should be. For all the food for thought and debate it provides, what makes "Black Swan" really special is the immediate way that it works on you if you give yourself over to it. It's a true cinematic experience, one that can be ecstatically savored even -- especially, maybe -- while it gleefully messes with one's head.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.