Thursday, February 10, 2011
In Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke got beaten with chairs and fists, sliced with razor blades, glass, and barbed wire, and--most memorably--punctured with a staple gun until he looked like a pincushion. But offstage, he was treated with gentleness, allowed to look for love and redemption and gain in dignity what he had lost, through years of abuse, in health. Natalie Portman gets no such luck in Aronofsky's latest hit. While the story is similar, ballet is nowhere near as violent as wrestling (although it does do a number on dancers' feet), and Aronofsky compensates by amping up the brutality and viciousness everywhere he can. Beefed up men pulverizing each other make for some great bittersweet drama, but pirouettes and fouettés deserve nothing but straight-up horror.
The unfortunate target of the film's enmity is Portman's meek and fragile Nina Sayers, who lives with her mother and has her bed piled high with stuffed animals. Nina has just been given the lead role in Tchaikovsky's ballet, Swan Lake, and the role is made even more difficult in that she's meant to perform as both the maiden, Odette, (the white swan), and the antagonist, Odile, (the black swan). Even if her "white swan" is perfect--she embodies virginal innocence and has impeccable technique--she's going to need some breaking down to bring out the ferocity, the seduction in her "black swan." There's plenty to help her get there; Black Swan fits in at least two narratives that are staples of the "feminine hysteria" genre--on one hand there's a story of repression and madness similar to that of Polanski's Repulsion, and on the the other, there's a tale of dangerous ambition and obsession straight out of The Red Shoes. On top of that is Aronofsky's almost instinctive fixation on self-inflicted mutilation and on the way people transform and destroy their own bodies.
With the odds stacked so heavily against Nina, it's no wonder that she's so miserable. Assault comes at her from all sides; a fellow dancer scrawls "whore" on her mirror when she doesn't land the lead part, and another dancer--who was fired from the company because she was deemed too old--blames her before trying to commit suicide. The company's director, who's adept at crossing boundaries and playing mind games, tells her, "I got a little homework assignment for you. Go home and touch yourself." She does, only to find her mother--asleep but still watchful--in the chair next to her bed. Eventually, I just felt sorry for the poor thing, but I got the feeling that Aronofsky rather enjoyed terrorizing her. Furthermore, for a movie that's strongly centered on women, Black Swan doesn't seem very concerned with treating any of them well. They're either creepy and overbearing, catty bitches, unstable and self-destructive, or licentious and overly aggressive, as in the case of Mila Kunis's Lily, who plays the role of Nina's rival, Nina's alter ego, and (*ahem*) Nina's partner.
While Black Swan may be a little problematic in its portrayal of sexuality, kindness and delicacy aren't things that can be expected once you cross over into the territory of psychological terror. Taken as a cinematic nightmare, Black Swan is quite effective, capable of achieving a rare level of sustained dread. Tonally, it resembled Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream in that there wasn't a single moment where I felt good while watching it. In fact, it left me weak kneed and with a bit of a queasy feeling in my gut, without being overly reliant on jump-moments. That's a good thing. But I'm not sure that Black Swan reaches the level of artistic perfection it sets out for. "Sounds depressing" says one handsome lunkhead when Nina tells him the story of the ballet she's been putting her life into. "Actually, it's beautiful" she responds tartly. I think he might have been right.