I found DARREN ARONOFSKY’s latest looking for self-love in all the wrong places opus BLACK SWAN nearly overwhelming and a great deal to take in. It’s a cinematic turducken stuffed with wild visuals, grandiose music, winking paintings and elaborate dance; just about every known tool of expression is represented in one form or another. If they distributed POLYESTER-inspired scratch-and-sniff cards to accompany the movie, the sensory overload would have been complete and my head would have exploded.
As I watched I didn’t quite know what to think. My eyes and ears were far too busy running around like mad squirrels snatching every bit of information they could retrieve. The film’s final articulation though is powerful enough to dance backwards furiously sewing it all together into one substantial whole. Oh, it’s pretentious all right, but considering the brittle, caustic environment it’s representing, it’s required to be. Artistry itself is unmasked as a cold snarling bouncer who’s happy to cruelly scan its would be suitors and capriciously refuse admittance. BACK SWAN is so open veined, needy and obvious in places that I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of embarrassment, a feeling I use as a dowsing stick to identify greatness. Seriously, if you create things impervious to the ravens of ridicule do the world a favor and don’t bother.
Holly Go-stiffly NATALIE PORTMAN is perfectly cast as an exquisite glass doll with a splintery recognition of not living up to her full potential. She blooms in this and synchronizes with the role in an exceptional way. As dancing as fast as she can’t ballerina Nina Sayers gradually merges together discarded and neglected aspects of herself, PORTMAN as an actress appears to do the same. The role requires her to swing from frustrating vulnerability to the depths of dark narcissism, she’s a Pinocchio replicant too paranoid and frenzied to understand she alone clutches the strings. Truly, she’s sick in the head, gnawing on her own tail and accusing shadows for the scars. BLACK SWAN may be sold to audiences as a psychosexual usurper thriller but that aspect of the film is patently delusional. Nina is her own monster mapping out her own tragedy. She’s paid for self-acceptance by slaving as a show pony and the check is doomed to bounce.
Let’s blame Mom! BARBARA HERSHEY with soldering iron stares portrays Nina’s cuticle critiquing smother mother and she’s one broom shy of a complete wardrobe. The character can be accused of being wildly unsympathetic and one-note but don’t forget she sprouted from Nina’s arrested fairy tale pop-up book view of the world. It’s not a literal depiction but a presentation of Nina’s perception. If you ask me, I think the world in this movie is intentionally exaggerated to illustrate Nina’s limited understanding of grey hues.
We also get WINONA RYDER slyly cast as a bitter once-was. Uncharacteristically, she doesn’t tear the whole playhouse down which makes me want to forgive her for her work in either BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA or ALIEN 4, but not both. Rounding out the cast, VINCENT CASSEL plays a douche charismatic enough to make you not care that he’s a douche and MILA KUNIS portrays Nina’s real fascination, a wily free spirit who she is both threatened and intrigued by. I have a lot of sympathy for PORTMAN’s character, if I had to hang out on a day-to-day basis with the eye-lasagna likes of CASSEL and KUNIS, I’d buckle under Bambi legs too. Meow. Anyway, even if you don’t fall under this film’s kinetic spell ARONOFSKY has to be acknowledged as an actor’s director, someone with the patience to harvest the best from his players.
As you probably already know BLACK SWAN is one of those kooky reality smudging mind-fuck movies like THE TENANT or JACOB’S LADDER. I admit to meeting few in this mini sub genre that I didn’t like. Seems to me “reality” really could use a bit of a boost in the being interesting department and movies are a great place to explore psychology on a visual level without being boxed in by the reigns of likelihood or the collective fantasy that we all experience life the same way.
It’s interesting to note that in mind-fuck films involving female characters (REPULSION, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, CARNIVAL OF SOULS) the protagonists tend to circle a different drain. Demonic insecurity is omnipresent and there’s an added accusatory vibe that the female characters are not “enough” or don’t feel “enough” that’s absent from the male anchored mind-fuck equivalent. It’s rather strange and I’m not sure which gender should be more insulted but I’ve decided that since the ladies sometimes get to have exploratory sexual experiences without the sky falling down that they ultimately get the better deal. (The exception to this double standard would be NAKED LUNCH where of course “everything is permissible”.)
In conclusion, did I mention I really fucking loved BLACK SWAN? I guess there’s no way around that simple truth. It’s a fascinating character study and although it might pluck feathers here and there from other works, the entire cast excels and I am confident that future viewings will only gift me more to chew. Although it guilds the lily up the wazoo there is something very human bleeding here too. I mentioned fairy tales before and it really works as an adult fable about the folly of obsessively trying to filter out anything that doesn’t fit into an idealized false concept of what is worthy or good. I personally cannot identify with the cursed search for “perfection” on account of I laughed that goblin away decades ago but Nina’s self debasement, body dysmorphia and coveting of the lives and identities of others I did sadly relate to. (If you didn’t, then why can’t I be you?). I can imagine some horror fans feeling that the gloves never fully come off in BLACK SWAN but if you ask me, the worst, most terrifying place to catch an image of the beast who is trying to demolish you is in your own reflection.