A while back bad boy director
Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) had a wicked idea for a film: a
love affair between a used up pro wrestler and a nervous ballerina. Aronofsky
later decided that this match was too over-the-top even for him and therefore
the lug and the princess got their own films, and now with the release of Black
Swan we get to decide if this was a good idea.
If you love a truly mad ride with a
wildly insecure heroine who is as likely to be fitted for a straight jacket as
a tutu by film’s end then Black Swan is for you; also it doesn’t hurt if
you secretly think that ballet dancers are little full of themselves and should
be made really vicious fun of, made to behave even more coarsely them pro
wrestlers, in this case Black Swan also delivers.
And if you think that after all the
years when Hollywood ferociously denied the queer side of the dance world it’s
time to inject some old fashioned narcissistic lesbian sex into the story, well
you have triple bonus points and Black Swan is really for you.
The story kicks off as the female
members of a prominent, if never named, New York ballet company are complaining
that their Svengali like director needs to shake up the company if they’re exit
the blahs of a stale repertoire and an aging female lead, Beth Macintyre
(Winona Ryder). Sure enough Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel/Read My Lips)
announces that Beth is retiring and he’s looking for a new star for the
season’s Swan Lake. Thomas’ methods are high handed bordering on abusive
– Cassel has mentioned modeling his character somewhat after the autocratic
George Balanchine – as he zeros in on the nervous Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman)
as his top choice for the Swan Queen. Thomas, who conducts his public/backstage
auditions like a thinly veiled seduction, informs Nina that while she’s perfect
for the White Swan who’s waiting for the undying love of her prince to return
her human body, she lacks the fire power to seduce the audience as the evil
Black Swan. Enter Lily, the sexy, tattooed tramp from San Francisco who
singles Nina out for friendship and an after work dance on the wild side. Nina
-- who’s been practically a prisoner of her ex-dancer mom, Erica (Barbara
Hershey) in a world of strict bed checks, stuffed animals and a short cell
phone leash (Mom’s ring tone is from Swan Lake) – badly needs an adult social
outlet, but her night on the town with Lily goes over the edge and soon Nina
and we are trapped in horror film tropes.
As with Mia Farrow’s increasingly
paranoid pregnant lady in Rosemary’s Baby, Nina starts to mistrust
everybody in her world and since we only know what she knows so do we. The one
oppressive side of Aronofsky’s style is the over-reliance on tight close-ups as
if we are never for a moment to get an “objective” outside of Nina’s view of
the proceedings. The close-ups also drastically limit our appreciation for the
dancing, coupled with the obvious limitations of having non-dancer actors who
are often doubled in the few full body shots in performance.
The roller coaster ride with an
amusingly unreliable narrator character is fun and sustainable for huge chunks
of the movie – the nightly incarceration with Hershey’s deftly controlling mom
complete with harrowing manicures; Nina’s confessions to the hospitalized Beth
(Ryder is a fright which works for her dethroned ballet queen); and that wild
night in bed which Lily doesn’t recall – but pulling off an equivalent to
Polanski’s nightmare world requires quasi-private settings where real or
imagined madness could be tolerated or allowed to slide. Rosemary’s Baby cooks
regardless of your view of Ruth Gordon’s satanic powers; in Nina’s case she’s
headed for a very public display of her dark side where any number of minders
would head off a true decent into madness.
With first The Wrestler and
now Black Swan Aronofsky delivers an adrenaline filled send up of first
a degraded American version of a once proud Greco-Roman male art form and a
Russian inspired female counterpart where the hero/heroine is expected to
sacrifice their bodies and sometimes much more to satisfy the dark side in us.
Oddly enough in Aronofsky’s version the male wrestlers come off as a hell of a
lot nicer human beings than the ballerinas who are all annihilating
ambition and sharp elbows on and off stage. In neither world is a
homoerotic impulse honored: Randy “the Ram” and his steroid bloated mates are
too close to circus freaks to inspire lust or sensual/aesthetic admiration
while Nina’s obsessive search for perfection has little room for male bodies
other than as human cranes.
The one time Nina’s partner has a line of dialogue it’s to
comment profanely on an unscripted pratfall.
Black Swan is our age’s idea
of high minded adult escapism and will surely grab its share of Oscar buzz but
I’m not sure if I could stand to see it again and furthermore it’s sad to watch
a version of Swan Lake where the ideal of undying human love of either
orientation is not even an afterthought.