Black Swan Review

Black Swan is, at its core, a film about sexual awakening, and the way that it unfolds everything it touches to present something new. Sex is a fairly new topic for Darren Aronofsky, because even though it has been present in his previous work (particularly Requiem for a Dream), sexual identity has never been a predominant concern for any of his characters. Here, in his first film with a female protagonist, he acquits himself beautifully on the technical front and is able to brilliantly imagine a sensual world that is only now coming into focus for Natalie Portman’s ballerina, but in doing so, reveals his limitations in understanding the nuances of human behavior and interaction. Healthy female sexuality may be a terrifying prospect for Portman here, but it is all the more so to Aronofsky.

Nina Sayers (Portman) is a dancer with a New York City ballet company, and lives strictly under the control of her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a failed dancer who has channeled much of her frustration into a maniacal, overbearing grip over her daughter’s life. When director of the company Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces that their show for the season will be Swan Lake, Nina is desperate to get the part of the white swan, but absolutely shocked when she does, and under the scrutiny of the rest of the company's dancers. There is a catch, however: Leroy insists that the dancer who portrays the innocent White Swan also act as the devious, manipulative Black Swan, in a not tremendously subtle representation of the Madonna/Whore complex. At his insistence, Nina begins to explore herself sexually, and also to befriend her understudy Lily (Mila Kunis), who lives and acts with a freedom that Nina can only begin to imagine. But the loss of virginity is a painful process, roughly equivalent here to the opening of a wound, and with mastery of the role comes a powerful loss of Nina’s selfhood, and her ability to restrain feelings that she didn’t know she had.

The influence of earlier films here is clear: the ballet sequences would probably not have been possible without Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, the dynamic between Nina and Erica is more than a little reminiscent of home-life of Carrie, and Nina’s fearful reproach of sexuality owes something to Repulsion. It should probably be noted that the most recent of those films came out 35 years ago, and it’s hard to argue that the sexual politics of this film are any more advanced than those that were commonplace back then. The problem isn’t necessarily in the way that Aronofsky largely aligns the world of the film along the black and white division of Swan Lake (although it does erase any shades of complexity that might have emerged from the film), but in the way that Aronofsky chooses to exemplify Nina’s liberation/debasement. She has violent hallucinations (often featuring dark-featured bird creatures), mutilates herself and others, and thinks about engaging in lesbian intercourse with Lily. Again, none of these are necessarily awful on their own, but the implication that all of these behaviors are somehow linked together is questionable at best, and wreaks of an age-old thinking that sexual pleasure will lead to personal destruction if not properly restrained.

To his credit, Aronofsky has come a long way as a director. While his early films depended mostly on their editing to achieve full impact, Swan is full of many gorgeously composed moving shots that far surpass anything that he’s done yet (even the final match at the end of The Wrestler), and perhaps the work of any other visual stylist this year. Above all, he is a director concerned with force, and with each passing film, he is able to work out more and more narrative kinks to better refine that force. But he is not yet a master of subtlety, and he probably doesn’t want or need to be. This isn’t a problem when dealing with the comfortable terrain of men obsessed and enraged (with whom he clearly identifies), but it’s curiously alienating in matters of women discovering themselves, and feels strangely like the work of an outsider looking in on feelings that he doesn’t fully understand, or can only funnel through his own experiences. As expected, it’s a stunning ride, but one that’s perhaps less truthful than you’d like it to be.

 

"Black Swan" opens December 3, 2010 and is rated R. Dance, Drama. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin. Starring Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder.

Jan
06
2011
Anders Nelson • Associate Editor

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