*Caution: This review contains spoilers*
Given better forethought and more skilled direction, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan could have been great—or at least lived up to its reputation as a “psychological thriller.” Although its premise is compelling, its development is tedious and predictable. The film really is little more than a smutty teen flick disguised as a pretentious tale of character metamorphosis.
Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a goody-two-shoes troupe ballet dancer hoping to land the leading role of swan queen in her New York company’s upcoming production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The difficulty of the role lies in portraying the character’s two diametrically opposed personas: the ingenuous white swan and the ominous black swan.
After Nina’s mediocre audition for the part, the ballet director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell), observes that while her innocent bearing and pristine balletic technique are perfect for the white swan, she lacks the passion to play the black swan. She later visits Thomas to try to change his mind about her suitability for the role. He suggests that her inability to portray the black swan stems from her repressed sexuality (could it be any more annoyingly Freudian?), whereupon he grabs Nina and violently kisses her. She bites him in response, and he interprets this lip nip as a sign that she may, in fact, be capable of the dark passion the role requires. (Hmm, shouldn’t any rational person interpret it as a normal reaction from a woman who’s being sexually assaulted?)
Thus, from this point onward, the film predictably centers on Nina’s “transformation.” After her successful “audition,” she meets one of her fellow dancers, Lily (Mila Kunis), who congratulates her on her selection and gives her a vote of encouragement, telling her that she will be “really great” in the role. The two of them go out for a night on the town, during which Lily offers Nina a pill of ecstasy, which Nina refuses, only to find out later that Lily had slipped it into her drink. Later on, the two head back to Nina’s, or I should say her mother’s (!), apartment for a hot bout of drug-induced lesbo sex. Apparently, Nina’s onanistic method of releasing inhibitions (in Thomas’s words, “go home and touch yourself”) is no longer sufficient. Beyond releasing her own sexual inhibitions, she must deepen her understanding of the wicked side of the character she is going to play by tasting of another woman who has a natural dark side (thus had Thomas described Lily earlier). Ho hum, Nina has some serious “identity issues,” not the least of which is that she has imagined the whole thing. (That ecstasy must have been some good shit, huh?)
The hallucinations culminate in Nina’s dressing room on the big night. After a disastrous first act in which she tightens up during a lift and is dropped to the floor by her partner, Nina encounters Lily in her dressing room, who is all set, at Thomas’s behest, to play the role of the black swan following Nina’s debacle. In a prima donna rage, Nina attacks Lily, who then transforms into Nina’s doppelganger before her eyes. An ugly catfight ensues, terminating in Nina’s grabbing a piece of glass from a shattered mirror and plunging it into her identical adversary, killing her. At long last, Nina has committed an act worthy of the black swan! Still in a hallucinatory daze, she transfers her newfound persona to the stage. In a display of special effects so deplorably cheap as to be reminiscent of the hideous remake of Clash of the Titans, Nina now identifies with her new role so strongly that she imagines she is sprouting black wings. Lionized by the crowd, she heads (waddles?) backstage and smooches a stupefied Thomas.
Back in her dressing room, Lily visits Nina to congratulate her on the performance. Nina is thus now compelled to rejoin reality: if not Lily, then whom did she kill? Her hallucinations are subsiding and there’s no sign of blood anywhere in the room—that is, not until she looks down at her stomach and sees that she has in fact stabbed herself with the glass. (What would a psychological commentary be without a little self-mutilation?) Back on stage dancing in the final act, bloody stain on her dress and all, she reassumes the docile role of the white swan. Upon her fall from the cliff, presumably a metaphor for her impending death, the film ends with Nina’s whispering “I felt it—perfect—it was perfect.”
Too bad that that’s just what the film isn’t. Its hackneyed repartée, threadbare screenplay, and dimensionless characters merely irritate. Worse are its crude psychological point-making, disgusting and often gratuitous innuendo, and predictable dénouement (though it of course has much pretense to profundity). The acting is perhaps an even bigger strike against it—Portman’s characteristically maudlin delivery and cardboard demeanor reminiscent of a grade-school production. (Besides her obvious sexual appeal, I can’t for the life of me understand what anyone sees in her, especially after her risibly atrocious performances in the Star Wars prequels.) Kunis fails to elicit any real dark side from her character (I wonder whether she’ll ever be able to get outside the character of Jackie Burkhart on That 70s Show). And with his tawdry-sounding accent and over-the-top machismo, Vincent Cassell would have probably found a more suitable calling in porn.
In the final analysis, Black Swan fails miserably to live up to its dubbing as a “thriller,” barraging its viewers with banality after banality and way overexplaining its central message of the unleashing of latent desires and the quest for personal and artistic identity, thereby leaving little room for the viewer’s own analysis and imagination. Why pose as serious drama? Films like this should simply be aired on the Lifetime movie network.
Joe’s Grade: C-