Done to death, I know,” says Vincent Cassel’s leering impresario Thomas of Swan Lake. “But not like this.”
Fittingly for a film rippling with self-reflective surfaces, he could be talking about Black Swan.
Its ingredients might be familiar, but the thrill of its dance spills from the spectacle of Darren Aronofsky making that material his own by sheer force of directorial will and a flair for making stars shine.
Aronofsky pitches his fifth feature as “a ‘were-swan’ movie” on the extras, a tasty-sounding hybrid but one that barely scrapes the film’s surface. It’s a symphony of flayed flesh, orgasmic pain and ecstatic becoming.
It’s a backstage melodrama on sanity’s brink, transformation terror in tutus, a makeover movie gone mad, body horror in leggings and The Red Shoes dancing to Dario Argento’s deranged tune. It should be a mess: all allusions, no focus.
A glance at Black Swan’s parallels with The Wrestler gives evidence of Aronofsky’s imprint, though. One film’s about an ageing meat-head and the other’s about a girl driven mad by the demands of playing both Swan Lake’s White and Black Swans, but Aronofsky’s claim that they’re partner pieces holds up.
Both weigh heavy on their leads, Mickey Rourke as Randy and Portman as Nina, a virginal woman incinerating her repression on the flames of a prime-ballerina role that requires raw passion.
Portman’s skin is alabaster to Rourke’s mashed steak, but both films rhapsodise the agony and ecstasy in cinema’s greatest special effect: the human face.
Both favour handheld camerawork and drained colours, stressing psychodrama over style and setting. And both blur the boundaries between human and animal, ram/man and swan/woman, zeroing in on the flesh at its most “visceral and real”.
Black Swan is more baroque than The Wrestler, but appropriately so and with resonant echoes of Aronofsky’s earlier work. The bombast goes with Tchaikovsky’s booming score, here brazenly manhandled by Clint Mansell; the stress on psychological damage recalls Requiem For A Dream.
There’s an argument to be made that Aronofsky’s attitudes to women are regressive, reinforcing virgin-whore dichotomies or characterising them as hysterical. But, alongside a lip-smacking Cassel, the three generations of women impeccably cast here relish the chance to ravish the scenery.
Mila Kunis is perfect as the smokin’ understudy who seems to crave Nina’s role. Simultaneously humanising and demonising her potentially grotesque role as the wicked witch of the Upper West Side, Barbara Hershey fleshes out the mother who’d have Nina imprisoned in pink whether out of jealousy, suffocating love or a psychosis that Carrie White’s mom might recognise.
And then there’s Winona Ryder, Portman’s forebear, cast as a rejected old-guard ballerina but attacking her role like it’s meat she’s been starved of.
That’s a full bowl of fruitcakes all right, fleshing out the players instrumental in Nina’s decline. We never forget that Nina is our unreliable eyes on events, though; and as surely as The Wrestler hewed to Rourke’s drift, this is the film in which the Oscarwinning Portman blossoms after let-downs like Goya’s Ghosts and (admit it) Star Wars.
Her body double Sarah Lane’s recent claim to have done the dancing brims with irony, given Swan’s perhaps laboured emphasis on doubling. But whether or not Lane did dominate, Portman’s face also magnetises us, hoofing from desperate and repressed to scared, confused, ecstatic, liberated, psychotic and finally, all poise obliterated, whip-lash wild in black.
Perhaps for the first time, the girl of Léon seems capable of growing in intensity with age – and despite Portman’s youth, age also links Black Swan to The Wrestler and RFAD. David Cronenberg maintained that The Fly, another tragi-melodrama of transformation, was never about AIDS but about getting older.
Age is similarly the shadow on Black Swan’s shadows, represented by Ryder and Hershey’s embittered characters. And it cuts close to what Swan might really be: a mirror on Hollywood’s record of chewing up actresses and spitting them out, with echoes of the ‘casting couch’ when Thomas asks Nina’s partner, “Would you fuck that girl?”
Whether she did dance or not, Portman gives every impression of suffering for her art on the extras.
The featurettes on production design are bite-sized, but a 50-minute Making Of offers some revelations, including footage of Portman miming shooting her head off as Aronofsky shouts “Cut! We go again” during her swan dive. FX breakdowns show her face superimposed on her double’s body, but Portman did train for six months, five hours a day and, mirroring Nina’s perfectionism, admits: “I could’ve done better.”
Could Black Swan be better? Probably. With Rourke’s Randy as the exception that proves the rule, Aronofsky still doesn’t do emotional nuance; dazzling as his direction is, its screeching flourishes bypass the heart.
But Black Swan is a blast while it lasts, begging for a third film to complete Aronofsky’s directorial trilogy. You also can’t help but wonder what he could do with a superhero franchise – and with one biggie on the market soon, it would be great to see him put his stamp on a certain Bat...
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