Disclaimer: Today’s review was written in a periodic state of semi-consciousness induced by a fever, sore throat, and medication ingested to combat said ailments. I would wait to revise and post this review in a slightly more coherent state, but it seems entirely appropriate to respond to this film in the same state of vague deliriousness under which it was clearly created. ***WARNING: I attempted to avoid spoilers but with such a film it is difficult to define exactly what constitutes a spoiler in the first place. So, read at your own risk.****
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the sanest one of all?
Is it Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), the aging prima ballerina, whose forced retirement creates the opportunity for a new star to rise in a prominent New York City ballet company? No; she compounds her resentment in alcohol and bitterly lashes out at those who used her, possibly to the point of self-mutilation.
Is it Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the womanizing director of the company, who chooses a radical new production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” as his latest project? No; he manipulates his dancers, professionally and sexually, demanding only results, with no care for the physical and emotional health of his employees.
Is it Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey), stage mother/dragon lady extraordinaire, who offers oppressive, smothering “support” to her precious daughter? No; having abandoned her own ballet career long ago, she lives vicariously through her offspring, either accidentally or intentionally ignorant of the effect of her manically (or maniacally) controlling ways.
Is it Lily (Mila Kunis), the technically imperfect but sensual up-and-coming dancer who may or may not have an eye on the role of the Swan Queen for herself? Actually, maybe; despite a predilection for clubbing and ecstasy, she seems to be satisfied with stumbling into the role of alternate for the Queen and patiently waiting for her turn. Then again, she could be a modern-day Eve Harrington, with an arsenal of disarming smiles and sincere-sounding compliments to mask her true intentions.
It’s certainly not Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), that tightly wound doll of a girl, pushed by an overbearing mother, a demanding director and a fanatically misguided sense of self-worth to pursue artistic perfection. Her voice is a little too high, her eyes a little too worried, her skin a little too thin. Her own body plays tricks on her – her fingernails and toes bleed, a strange rash breaks out on her back, she seems plagued by the shiftiest, creepiest case of goosebumps you’ll ever see. Perfection, perfection, perfection, she must have it; but it is her very same drive for precision which stands in her way of triumph. As the sweet, precious White Swan she is unmatched, but the soaring, seductive steps of the Black Swan elude her. No, Nina is never the sanest of them all; she always stands on the razor’s edge, a troubled artist in danger of losing herself in a role, in a play, in a world that asks for simply too much of her.
Is it Darren Aronofsky and company? The sly, enigmatic creator of this expertly constructed psycho-thriller has delved deep into the horror genre and extracted every useful trope to produce one of the most profoundly unsettling, terrifying cinematic experiences to be had in years. Every below-the-line element meticulously supplements the dark, disturbing atmosphere of paranoia and madness established by Portman’s brilliantly transformative performance – Clint Mansell hauntingly riffs on Tchaikovsky’s melodies, while Matthew Libatique’s camera alternately scrabbles through the claustrophobic gloom of Aronofsky’s warped fun-house mirror world with a distorted eye, or swoops across the ballet stage with the grace of one of Leroy’s dancers. Aronofsky knows exactly what he is doing, creating a wonderful companion piece to his 2008 film “The Wrestler” in style and substance that takes a hard turn from that subtle, moving character drama into unforgettable, bold, melodramatic genre work. But still no; perhaps it is a mistake to equate self-confidence with sanity.
Is it the audience? One must hope so. It is difficult to sit and witness a psycho-sexual spectacle such as the one that “Black Swan” presents and feel anything approaching empathy with its wack-job ensemble. As thrilling and chilling entertainment, Aronofsky’s latest deserves parallels to the most disturbing and disturbed works of Polanski, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Powell (one wonders if “Black Swan” came about after someone dared Aronofsky to film his own take on “The Red Shoes”). But, as a rumination on the inherent danger and tragedy of total devotion to one’s art (so sublimely laid out in “The Wrestler”), there is a flaw in “Black Swan.” The dual role of the Swan Queen is presented as the factor that finally sends precious Nina down the rabbit hole, when this is clearly a woman on the verge of a breakdown no matter what the circumstances. Observant cinema-goers will notice that Nina’s hallucinatory self-division quietly begins before “Swan Lake” is even mentioned. Portman’s performance is an absolute clinic in the importance of precise body language and physical prowess (watch her final dance as the Black Swan closely; Portman recevied some ballet training for this film, but nowhere near enough to truly perform this kind of role – yet the way she carries herself is so thoroughly convincing, you would swear you were watching the next Pavlova), creating a character so fragile, her shattering eruption is inevitable from the get-go.
The world of “Black Swan” is filled with mirrors, its characters constantly placed in a position of self-scrutiny that the film itself occasionally lacks. This is not a criticism, mind you – would that we had more filmmakers in America working with such heedless creative abandon. But what does a mirror reflect? The soul, or the surface?
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: Any possible star ranking would be wildly inappropriate and misleading. But you should see it.