If there’s one thing that that I’ve spent the better part of my life avoiding, it’s “professional” wrestling. If there are two things I’ve spent the better part of my life avoiding, the second thing is ballet dancing. In spite of my general disinterest in these activities, Darren Aronofsky has challenged my assumptions about both by making back to back films about one and then the other. 2008’s The Wrestler was one of the best films of the last decade, a brilliant portrait of a man addicted to the moderate fame that his physically taxing career provided him. While I certainly haven’t become a wrestling fan since seeing the film, it did at least make a pretty good argument that there was a legitimate craft and skill to the activity. Ballet is another form of performance art, one that’s on the opposite side of the respectability scale, but one that takes an oddly similar toll on those participating in it.
The film centers on a rising star in the New York ballet world named Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) who’s on the brink of her big break. It’s a break she needs, though only in her late twenties she is still said to be getting relatively old and if she doesn’t make it soon she’s probably not going to. Fortunately, the company she works for is in search of a replacement for their old star Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) and Sayers is a pretty good fit for the lead in their upcoming “revisioned” production of Swan Lake. The company’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), explains that the role of the Swan Queen requires a dancer who can embody both innocent White Swan and the sensual Black Swan and that Sayer only seems to work in the former rather than the later. In spite of this, she’s cast in the role, something that does little to restore her confidence. Sayer feels like she will fail or that the jealous people around her like the company’s newest dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), will make her fail.
Central to the film’s tone is paranoia; this is the best Roman Polanski movie of the year not to be directed by Roman Polanski (with Shutter Island as the second best non-Polanski Polanski movie). It’s a psychological portrait of someone’s decent into madness and at times it can be hard to decipher what’s real in the movie and what’s in the protagonist’s mind. At the center of this paranoia is Lily, a rival ballerina reminiscent of the title character from All About Eve. Lily is like the opposite of Sayer: she’s laid back, outgoing, sexually experienced, and willing to casually eat a hamburger. She’s almost everything that Sayer wishes to be and perhaps needs to be, she’s such a clear opposite that for a moment I thought the movie was going to make her into a Tyler Durden-esque figment of Sayer’s imagination (she isn’t, at least not exactly). At times these paranoid delusions can get fairly intense, the film almost feels like some kind of psychological horror movie when these begin to manifest, a little like Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder.
It’s abundantly clear that Aronofsky sees a kinship between Black Swan and The Wrestler. I’ve already mentioned the way that the activities at the center of the two films are like two sides of the performance art coin, but the similarities go deeper than that. Both films are in many ways a platform to highlight great performances from their leads, both films depict performance related vices (it was steroids in The Wrestler and here it’s bulimic behaviors), and (spoiler warning) the two films have comparable last shots. Another similarity between the two films is that they both use a similar grainy 16mm look. This worked excellently for The Wrestler, which was an extremely down to earth film set in the seedy world of off-brand wrestling. However, I’m not so sure it was the right choice for this movie, which was set in a decidedly more glamorous world and which has a number of potentially fantastical elements. That the film was shot handheld is certainly to its benefit as that medium is used to its full potential in the dance sequences, but the grain might have been a bit much.
Natalie Postman doesn’t have the big comeback story that Mickey Rourke had, but she’s very strong here, maybe even better than Rourke was in The Wrestler. Rourke certainly needed to create an evocative character for his film, but his character isn’t quite put through the ringer to the degree that Portman’s is. Through the film Portman has to go from being stressed and repressed to being, freaked out and desperate, to being nervously mischievous, to finally being a confident swan of sorts. Added to her list of accomplishment is the fact that Portman does most of her own dancing in the movie, and to these untrained eyes seemed to do it extremely well. Her foil, Milla Kunis, is fine in her role but her success is more the result of excellent casting than anything; the role fits her to a T. Vincent Cassel is also really well cast, he’s been long typecast as exactly the kind of slimy euro-trash that he plays here and he does it well. There are also two prominent older actresses in the film; Winona Ryder as the former star dancer of the company and Barbara Hershey as Sayer’s strange and overprotective but loving mother.
Black Swan is a thrilling movie in many ways and there are a handful of scenes in it (especially the finale) that are among the best you’ll see all year. However, I don’t think the film necessarily lives up to The Wrestler, a film whose thematic undercurrent ultimately proved more coherent, fleshed out, and orderly than in Black Swan. This proves a challenge when trying to assess the film, as I don’t feel it deserved to be placed on the same pedestal as Aronofsky’s last film, and yet I don’t want the punish the guy simply for having made a particularly great film two years ago. I suppose I’m just going to have to leave the film with a strong endorsement, and it’s going to need it. Trying to market an intense psychological thriller to a ballet-appreciating audience is almost as audacious as trying to sell an art-house character study to a wrestling-appreciating audience. It was even more audacious to succeed as much as he did at both.
***1/2 out of Four