Teetering on the edge between melodrama and high art, “Black Swan” is a gripping, spooky, exultant picture that is as beautiful as it is ugly. Sure to divide audiences, its experimental, allegorical magic realism is the skeleton upon which the flesh of a twisted, psychological character piece is built.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a rising star in the cutthroat world of New York ballet. She is a technician, known for her obsessive, insatiable pursuit of perfection. Skill wise, she is the clear choice to replace aging prima ballerina, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), as the duplicitous Swan Queen in the company’s upcoming interpretation of “Swan Lake.” Her grace and beauty mesh seamlessly with that required by the White Swan. Her eccentric artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), however, is unimpressed with her portrayal of the Black Swan, which requires an air of beguiling, lasciviousness to supersede the technical form she’s worked all her life to perfect. Still, the role is hers for the taking, that is, until the new girl, Lily (Mila Kunis), emerges as formidable competition. Reminded daily of the hollow existence of a has-been ballerina, at least in her limited view, by her overbearing stage-mother, Nina succumbs to the crushing pressure and slips rapidly into the perilous abyss of the Black Swan.
Director Darren Aronofsky paints a deliberately unsubtle picture of transformation in “Black Swan” that will almost certainly repel both general audiences and the piously artistic. It may be readily interpreted that the film’s pointed presentation of explicit sexual self-discovery, psychotic irrationality and self-destruction are not only useful tools in the creation of true art, but required stages in that pursuit. The fact that Nina is female, and sexually repressed, complicates things with a layer of anti-feminism. It seems Aronofsky is, in effect, saying that in order for a woman to be considered an artist, she must be freed sexually by a man, and then be willing to kill her rivals and/or herself for her art. Contrast this interpretation with Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2009 film “Bronson,” which glorifies and revels in its titular character’s rabid masculinity, and allows him to define the standards by which his own art is judged. Both theses make for intellectually inadequate and morally dour works of cinema. Luckily, “Black Swan” exhibits an uncommon depth, and offers something beyond surface readings for those who are willing to look.
The New Yorker’s David Denby, a critic I admire, wrote in his negative review of the film “[Aronofsky] imposes his own bloodlust on a woman’s mind and then turns her into a myth of sacrifice.” Denby, among others, sides with the interpretation I have explained. But I don’t think that is Aronofsky’s aim. Nina is rarely an active protagonist, and she can hardly be said to exhibit bloodlust. ”Black Swan” isn’t a misogynistic story of an aspiring artist who must win the approval of a male superior. Nina is already an accomplished artist who is merely a victim of circumstance. Her climactic triumph is not one of artistic achievement, but of relief. Having lived her entire life as the White Swan, probably through no choice of her own, and inexorably thrust into an antithetical persona for a short time, Nina finally finds the courage to reject both. She is in control for the first time in her life, crossing the threshold from passive to active protagonist. And it is a joy to watch.
“Black Swan” is Aronofsky’s most mature film to date. His fascination with self-destruction and the primitive man, exercised prominently in each of his previous films, gets another pass here but with a more daring, more confident and smarter director at the helm. ”Black Swan” is easily one of the year’s best films.