By Nicole Beth Wallenbrock
The poster for Darren Aronofsky’s newest film, Black Swan, recalls Mathew Barney’s Cremaster series and the Nutcracker all at once. The portrait of Nathalie Portman smiling in eerie make-up—white face with eyes painted black—enhances the actress’s ever-apparent grace; her neck looks elongated for the role, her posture intimidates. This time the director’s penchant for the uncanny (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) lands in ballet, a craft of appearance and movement, so different and yet so similar to wrestling, the focus of his last film.
Aronofsky follows his past investigation of an exclusively male profession, by peering into the world of ballerinas—a metaphor for feminine discipline and sexual repression. Although ballet theater provides Black Swan with a familiar, yet unique setting, the documentary element of the last film that exposed professional wrestling for its theatrics is absent. Instead, a more layered psychological portrait of performance emerges, all while stroking, a pulpy horror genre. Nathalie Portman plays Nina with virginity and innocence, wearing only white and “ballet” pink until the black swan sequence of her final performance. Perhaps, Portman is a tad old for the part, living with an overbearing mother, (Barbara Hershey), a music box, and large plush toys, or perhaps this intentionally heightens the bizarreness of the family life which she will eventually destroy. In the scenes between ballet mom and ballet star, one feels the influence of Brian de Palma’s Carrie, a film that also depicts an innocent young woman’s sexual awakening to violent power.
While at times the film’s dialogue lacks conversational flow, and at others’ actors appear unnatural, the artificiality of the dance world and the strangeness of the invoked horror-genre excuse these off-beat moments. Blood and cutting are central to creating The Black Swan’s mood and pace, nail files and clippers are fear factors that provoke twitching every time. If Portman is cast well because of her dance-training and size, Winona Ryder is superbly cast in a minor role as Beth, an aging primadonna that mirrors the actress’s has-been situation in Hollywood. Vincent Cassel plays the Balanchine-like director of the ballet, and provides much of the film’s humor in his obvious, sexual, phrasing and strong French accent. Unfortunately, the rival ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis), does not threaten the protagonist or the audience. The actress seems more like a California party girl than a dark force of nature. This mix of brilliant and sloppy in acting and dialogue is part of the film’s larger disordered style which can feel both liberating and cluttered.
The film is most ambitious when suggesting the dual nature of human existence and the merging of young women, reminiscent of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. However, it is in the film’s breathtaking climax that the dancers’/actors’ efforts as well as the camera attached to twirling Portman create the most visually arresting dance sequence in the history of cinema. Viewers should attend the film expecting playful horror only to be surprised when the film takes bigger risks that succeed visually, if not otherwise.