For a time, I fretted Black Swan would reduce its protagonist to a reductive set of sexual clichés, the virginal naïf whose madness could be cured by one good lay. As someone who has grown up with various anxieties, I've always found the phrase "Loosen up" to border on the offensive, displaying an utter lack of understanding on the part of people who are surely well-meaning but also condescending and oversimplifying. As the entire arc of the prima ballerina in Darren Aronofsky warped thriller is founded on the need for her to lose control a bit, I braced myself for a childish, possibly sexist mixture of Roman Polanski's Repulsion and Michael Powell's The Red Shoes.
Instead, I got an inventive, and brutally raw blend of Aronofsky's well-established visual acuity with his budding affinity for piercing character drama. Nassim Nicholas Taleb developed an idea he termed the "black swan theory," in which an event happens that surprises everyone -- such as the discovery of black swans in the 18th century after the term had become an idiomatic expression for that which could not exist -- and people rationalize the aberration in retrospect into a shift that could have been anticipated. Black Swan itself amusingly fits into this theory, helping to explain how the maker of visual feasts with thin characterizations could suddenly leap from a film as philosophical and detached as The Fountain to one of the most perfectly executed character tragedies of the last decade.
Opening in the dreams of the aforementioned dancer, Nina (Natalie Portman), Black Swan instantly announces its blend of hand-held, grainy footage with a subjective and fanciful mise-en-scène. Nina dances against infinite black, her white tutu and pale skin glowing in the abyss as a pale spotlight illuminates only her. Dancing Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in her head, the dream ends with the Swan Queen dancing with the evil Von Rothbert, foreshadowing the central conflict of the film to come, one that does not particularly involve an antagonist but revolves around this tango between ingénue and villain.
Nina awakes and heads to practice, where she guns for the role she danced in her sleep. Using fleet glances and mild but unmistakable passive-aggression, Aronofsky displays the competitive spirit of the dancers, exacerbated by emaciation and overwork. In the dressing room, the dancers mock Beth (Winona Ryder), the prima ballerina being edged out for her age, and the only cliques that seem to form among the individuals competing always seem to be in opposition to Nina. In the studio, some of their antagonism becomes clear: Nina is flawless, dedicated entirely to her craft at the expense of talking to the others for any extended time. So immaculate is her dancing that the theater director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), considers not giving her the role of the Swan Queen because while her fragility and composure makes her perfect for the innocent White Swan, she would be all wrong for the looser and more seductive Black Swan-half of the character.
Still, he selects Nina for the part and sets about training her to, in effect, mar her perfection. It's an odd notion, to improve the finest dancer by introducing impurity, and Nina has difficulties with the lesson, to say the least. Raised by a former ballerina (Barbara Hershey) whose own career ended when she got pregnant, Nina has worked her entire life toward proving herself not only among her peers but to the demanding mother that lives vicariously through her.
Thomas wants Nina to seduce the audience, and him, as the Black Swan, and Cassel pours all his leering, rakish sleaze into the role. Leroy is a womanizer, but as much as he loves toying with his stars, his sexual harassment of Nina might also be a ploy to shake her loose. Unfortunately for Nina and everyone else in her life, Thomas tears out the wrong screws, sending Nina deeper and deeper into madness from the stress.
If The Wrestler displayed the travails and heartbreaks of a professional past his prime, Black Swan demonstrates the equal difficulty of the young performer breaking into the spotlight. Randy's escape from reality occurred in the ring, but even then all he could do was bathe in the crowd's love. Unable to loosen up, Nina moves backward into further isolation, and her reality begins to shift and rupture. At the start, she notices a mild rash on her back, and as her efforts to become the Black Swan strain her further, her body reacts in more noticeable ways.
The ease with which Aronofsky recalls the body horror of early David Cronenberg makes the minuscule aberrations in Nina's flesh all the more unsettling. Whether actually splitting a toenail or hallucinating peeling off a strip of skin on her finger, Nina's failing body naturally replicates her crumbling mind, a literal embodiment of the reflective imagery that runs through the film**. Aronofsky suggests as much through mirror images (and the occasional manipulation of same) as he does through the subjective moments: often, we see a character first in a reflection, then in person. Even the characters seem to pick up on this, and they attribute a certain power to mirrors, especially when Nina equates stardom with the private mirror Beth enjoyed as the prima ballerina.
Other touches only compound the mounting insanity. The sound mix isolates the teasing whispers of Nina's peers, especially Veronica (Ksenia Solo, whose eyes look as if they were carved from ice), whose jabs are faint but crystal clear. Then, of course, there's Lily (Mila Kunis), the less talented but more passionate dancer who embodies the Black Swan as much as Nina does the White. The more Nina sinks into her madness, the more Lily filters into as the key to her deliverance but also her downfall. Much has been said about the sex scene between Portman and Kunis, but typically not for how disturbing it is in its outright eroticism. It doesn't make lesbianism horrific, mind you; the sex, as one might expect from two women, is so emotionally complex that its implications seep into the brain until one almost forgets that two gorgeous women are going at it. Almost.
This all feeds into the film's central flaw, that these fractals of tattered sanity do not add up to the same level of character insight that defined Aronofsky's previous film. The director does not particularly care for the nuance of Nina's life, defining her against Lily's forthright sexuality, Thomas' predatory mixture of lasciviousness and "hands-on" artistic molding, Beth's cracked mirror view into her own future and the mother's psychological torture. Even her bulimia seems the product more of her constant stress than a sexist purge of calories to maintain weight. Aronofsky also spares no critical eye for ballet in the same way he dug into the behind-the-scenes grit of wrestling, ignoring the deeper sexual implications of an art that depends entirely on contortion and control of every muscle (though he does at least skirt the issue with his clear looks at undulating back muscles and rigid legs during the dancers' practice)*.
By the same token, Black Swan isn't meant to be a character study nor a feminist text. It's a horror film, one that uses its Super-16 cinematography and thick grain to, yes, add a more realistic vibe to the film's aesthetic, but the grain has a double edge, also separating the audience from full involvement with its hazy sheen. It's tactile yet abstract, like Nina's characterization, and it has the effect of complicating the scares by further blurring the line between objective terror and Nina's subjective reaction to it. If Aronofsky does not plumb the same depths of tortured femininity as Polanski did with Repulsion, he at least presents a masterful evocation of the life-destroying obsession with success. It's almost political: Nina has to make her mark before she gets out of her mid-20s or she'll never make it, while the average person has to commit just as completely now just to maintain a job. Unlike Randy, and like Moira Shearer's Vicky in The Red Shoes, Nina does not want the fame; notoriety is simply the yardstick by which she can measure her mastery. Place Black Swan next to The Social Network as a look at the way professionalism and sexual repression blend in the modern world.
That Aronofsky should have chosen Portman to portray this perfection-hungry ballerina may be the touch that elevates Black Swan to near-greatness. I have long been fascinated with the actress, who always comes off as incredibly approachable -- she did, after all, just launch a production company designed to make stoner comedies for women -- but also has such an other-worldliness to her because of her beauty and intelligence that I have difficulty processing whatever character she plays in a movie because I see Natalie Portman, not Evey Hammond or that Manic Pixie Dream Girl in Garden State. Though her performance does not fully intertwine her life with her character's in the way Mickey Rourke's did, Portman at last breaks through with her finest role since Leon and Beautiful Girls by playing directly into her greatest setback. Cassel's character voices the key issue with Portman's work. The more she loses control to get Nina to the ideal performance, the more Portman finally disappears into the part in a way she hasn't done in more than 10 years. It's a critical breakthrough for the actress, and one that reminds me why I was so bowled over by her teenage performances when I discovered her early work back in my own teens.
To be sure, Black Swan can be manipulative, with its jump scares and constantly building dread that leads into one of the most draining climaxes in recent memory (an appropriate touch for a movie about a virginal protagonist, considering that the first climax is always the most bewildering). But this is not the same director who made the shameless Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky may be returning to the same area as that movie, but Black Swan is too sly to get caught in that trap again. He's grown too much: would the Requiem-era Aronofsky have ever thought to include a moment as ice-breaking and fantastically funny as a vision of the creature that haunts Nina walking by her with a casual "Hey"? Armed with a terrific score by Clint Mansell that incorporates and refashions Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake score, Aronofsky has made a film that may, ultimately, not have much to say but speaks with such eloquence that we are held rapturous in its power. Nina spends the whole film trying to find the balance between flawed and immaculate. Aronofsky finds it from the start.
*In fact, Aronofsky's best commentary on ballet involves the occasional cuts in the soundtrack, leaving the ballerinas to dance in silence, obliterating the grace of movement with the garish, plodding sight and sound of thudding feet. Suddenly, the art of dance is broken, and we're left wondering why someone would torture herself for so hollow a profession.
**Perhaps the most disturbing of warped reflections is the collage of terrifying, abstract portraits of Nina her mother paints, half of them angelic, half demonic. It's not only indicative of the forces swelling inside the young woman but of the way the mother views her daughter, the light of her life but also the killer of her dreams.