Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
I’ve seen differing opinions about Darren Aronofsky’s latest film – ranging from “trashy and incoherent” to a “tour de force.” As for me, I’ll channel my best Jim Backus impression:
“Oh Aronofsky… you’ve done it again!”
Black Swan is like a mishmash of “Showgirls” and Aronofsky’s own “The Wrestler” with some Sybil, Single White Female and Fight Club sprinkled in along the way… on acid. And yes, that’s primarily a good thing. Admittedly, it’s melodramatic and ham-handed in some ways. However, it’s the way in which the director blends his own gritty style with the surrealism of, say, David Cronenberg that makes it so compelling. It’s such a different movie than I expected, and as you watch the surprisingly strong Natalie Portman go further down the rabbit hole, you become sucked in with her.
Every time I think I’m out, he sucks me back in
Aronofsky’s movies are all flawed in some form or another, but they also have a unique knack of drawing you in like few other movies can. Aronofsky has a way of not only making you interested in his characters, but putting you right up there in the film with them. And while you’re up there, you can’t help but experience visceral reactions to the trials they endure – be they emotional or physical or both.
[Tell me you don’t feel every one of those staples being plucked from Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s back after his match in The Wrestler, or the utter despair of Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream, or Max’s epiphany-turned-descent-into-madness in Pi.]
And that’s where The Black Swan is so unsettling. On the one hand, Aronofsky’s gritty realism sucks you in – you feel the soreness in Nina Sayers’ legs as she rehearses each full turn in an effort to complete a demanding routine. When she splits a toenail, your body shivers… it’s far worse than watching Machete hack off a head, because you’re right there with her.
That’s why, as the movie begins to unravel and question what’s real and what’s not, you become unsettled because your own perception is off kilter. And unlike a movie like Inception (which I thought was good, just for the record), where the same question is bandied about, you never really feel uncomfortable because you’re removed from the action. You’re simply a bystander taking account of what’s happening. In Black Swan, you feel vulnerable and unsure just as much as Nina or any character on that screen.
In the hands of another director, maybe that does play as trashy or parlor tricky. Here, in my opinion, it creates a unique, disorienting and utterly entertaining experience.
Transformer: More than meets the eye
Black Swan centers around Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, who is actually pretty good in the lead – and if cajoling a performance out of that lifeless piece of driftwood doesn’t speak volumes about the director’s prowess, I don’t know what does), a lifelong hoofer who has been training, sacrificing and inducing vomiting since she was a babe in order to become a prima ballerina. She gets her shot when the company decides to cast her as the lead in their new version of Swan Lake.
Sure, she’s got the technical brilliance and the purity of the White Swan down pat… but the question becomes: is she too frigid and stiff to play the dark, seductive swan? That’s when something strange happens on her way to the orchestra pit. Nina’s journey to discover her darker side plays out unexpectedly, and you’re never quite sure what’s actually happening. Is she being manipulated by her new rival? Is she actually a demented little Sybil trying to escape the confines of her soft-spoken, fragile shell? Does she experience a drug-induced fantasy or a walk on the wild side one night with… well, someone?
There are plenty of stereotypical characters in the film – the overbearing mom who gave up her own career to have the budding young star; the sexual wolf in brilliant genius choreographer’s clothing; the mysterious new girl with the big ol’ tattoos and a penchant for bad behavior. But the performances make these characters all believable. Barbara Hershey makes the mom truly creepy (aided, no doubt, by the fact that she pretty much looks like a mummy at this point in her career). Vincent Cassel is his usual brilliant self. And Mila Kunis is (to steal a word from my brother) fetching. It’s a great cast.
Yes, even Portman.
Like I said at the start, the movie has its melodramatic and ham-handed moments… bordering on silly at times (and the ending is a bit of a copout, frankly). But that’s like saying a Dario Argento movie was implausible. This is meant to be symbolic and hazy and absurd. In the hands of Darren Aronofsky, it bleeds into your psyche and leads you on a wild ride for two hours. Go see it – it’s unlike anything else you’ll see this year. Mike’s verdict: B+
But don’t just take my word for it
The average Metacritic rating was 77 (“Generally favorable reviews”).
[Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.]