Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was near-great. It may have been diffuse around the edges, but it had Mickey Rourke for its beating heart—and Marisa Tomei just out of his reach. Released to theaters between President Obama’s election and inauguration—and on the heels of the economic crunch—it gave an “ordinary” American workingman the chance to do something that No Country for Old Men had withheld from him: fight back. Randy may have crucified himself for his illusions, but he did so nobly; those illusions weren’t just his. The script, by Robert D. Siegel, put an American spin on the rickety hat-twirling of The Entertainer, and the movie was as sentimental in its own way as Charlie Chaplin’s fading Limelight; but The Wrestler was also a beautiful evocation of how I—and, I suspect, many others—felt at that time. It ended tragically, but resonantly; it was cathartic. The wrestler died because he could no longer fight to live; but we were inspired to move on, to move forward. It’s amazing how much can change in two years; illusions can mutate into maximum-security prisons.
Black Swan—the new Aronofsky film, from a screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin—begins lyrically. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) dreams of playing the lead in a production of the ballet Swan Lake, and she’s all legs—drifting across an unlit stage like a snowflake batted by the wind, a ragdoll animated by the Brothers Quay. As soon as she wakes up, however, her rarified, Lincoln Center-centric world merges with the brusque working-class ethos of The Wrestler; the catch is that she never really wakes up. Nina gets the part of her dreams, but this attainment is tainted from the onset because this is another mind’s-eye-view of a breakdown, with a female soul subbing for the one holed up in Shutter Island. Her impresario, Thomas (Vincent Cassel)—purred, en français, Toh-mah—is, of course, a European and an epicure, and, therefore, by default, a sexaholic scapegrace. (When he speaks English, he sounds disarmingly like Tommy Wiseau.) Each prima ballerina serves as his sweetie-pie du jour. But this customary trade-off leaves Nina—who makes Doris Day look like a Kardashian—feeling squeamish. This worries Thomas; she can play the virtuous White Swan with formal perfection, but the deep-seated naughtiness of the Black Swan makes her hard-won skills wither. Black Swan is about how Nina conjures her inner beast—“art” tears her goody-gumdrop innards out the way fangs can rip feathers from a pillow.
Unfortunately, this impassioned dance macabre looked to me like an intellectualized chicken dance. It’s a bag of obvious tricks, all shook up like the shivery camerawork. The story picks up around the end, but the tension of the first three-quarters comes from trying to figure out how Aronofsky will dodge that unbidden terminus: how he’ll pirouette himself out of “control”—as Nina’s essaying to do—and into something more riveting and organic. She succeeds(-ish); he fails. The director has strapped himself to such burnt-out duds as a.) Thomas’s swanky digs, decked out with Rorschach blots; b.) Nina’s pretty-in-pink, perpetual pillow-fight of an existence; c.) a mumsy (Barbara Hershey) who gave up her own dancing career, and thus lives through her daughter’s gams, like a passive-aggressive, white-bread Mo’Nique from Precious; d.) a jealous rival (Winona Ryder, looking exquisite), who’s guilty only of senescence, but scampers madly into traffic and toasts her bread-winners; e.) an evil-twin doppelgänger (a deliciously lopsided—and cunning—performance by Mila Kunis) in whom Nina’s sex confusion and self-hatred queasily commingle; and f.) a mirror motif reflective of all the film’s disappointments. All the psychological-thriller effects are executed well enough to constrain me from ruining them for you, but they made me cackle rather than cower; where’s the suspense when it’s only a paper doll that’s folding?
Nina is an ideal role for Portman; no doubt it was conceived with her mandarin face in mind. Within its limits, she’s incredibly proficient—one could even say perfect. But the role itself is as hoary as it is anti-whorey. Slogging through this cinematic admonitory-jeremiad-about-repression is like antiquing for second-hand Freud, and to use a ballerina as a metaphor for the artist who rejects all things worldly is no new innovation; anyone who’s seen The Red Shoes knows that. Who’s afraid of virginal sheep? Worrywarts who fear for uptight artists probably suffer from a similar set of hang-ups. (The movie can recuse itself from almost any attitude I ascribe to it because one isn’t meant to know where Nina’s wackiness ends and the filmmakers’ viewpoint begins; but the judgment they pass on their heroine is rather baldly rendered.) Honestly, I’m sympathetic to these ascetic aesthetes—Aronofsky, in a way, is too—but that far from precludes me from partaking in the pleasures of the flesh. I wouldn’t wanna hit Black Swan’s gooseflesh, though; its visual scheme takes beauteous ballet and converts it into an ugly duckling. We probably don’t get many full shots of Portman dancing for the good reason that there wasn’t enough time to train her; but the result is a black eye to ballet: The film is about the attainment of an art that it doesn’t appear to appreciate. It’s making the same point that The Wrestler did about smack-down; but, nimble as its practitioners are, wrestling is rough on the surface. Ballet isn’t. It transfigures hard work into effortless grace.