Thursday, January 12, 2012

Short Take: Black Swan

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

“Make it visceral.” That’s the goal of the director (Vincent Cassel) of the production of Swan Lake in the 2010 film Black Swan. Those words also seem to be guiding the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky. The story is about a New York ballet dancer (Natalie Portman) who is preparing to play the show's lead. The drama is in her confronting her insecurities, although wrestling with insanity might be more accurate. The script, credited to Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, and John McLaughlin, has a conventionally literary means of portraying her conflicts: it gives her a number of doppelgängers whom she must either come to terms with or defeat. One is the domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) who abandoned her own dance career after becoming pregnant. Another is the dance company’s former star (Winona Ryder), whose washed-up, suicidal bitterness represents what the Portman character fears for herself. A third is a free-spirited rival dancer (Mila Kunis), who is conniving to take over her part. And a fourth is a confident, sexually assertive vision of herself, who embodies the qualities she must tap into in order to successfully play her role. One would think there was already angst and melodrama to spare, but Aronofsky heightens things further with a parade of body-horror effects. Portman’s scenes with Hershey and Ryder invariably climax with gruesome images of pain and injury. Her scenes with Kunis trade these for sex, but one is so conscious of her character giving over to self-destructiveness that one watches them with almost as much dread. And the scenes with her alone are perhaps the most disturbing. She is shown vomiting, obsessing over a bloody rash on her shoulder blade, and hallucinating copious bleeding from her fingers and toes. Even the rehearsal scenes are unpleasant to watch. Aronofsky and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, keep them very harshly lit: the women’s muscles and sinews appear to flex and strain after the skin’s been flayed off. The performances are a mixed bag. Aronofsky has Natalie Portman overdo her character’s high-strung manner; she goes through almost every scene looking like she’s on the verge of a breakdown. It’s hard to believe a dance company would employ such a basket case, much less cast her in a lead. Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder surprisingly don’t make much of an impression. But Mila Kunis is quite enjoyable as the rival; she has a fluid, good-humored sauciness that keeps one looking forward to her. The best performance, though, comes from Vincent Cassel as the dance company’s charismatic, manipulative director. He dominates every scene he’s in, and he makes it look effortless. In contrast, Aronofsky is trying too hard. He may think he’s offering a baroquely expressionist character study, but the film is just a gaudy, repellent spectacle--like a David Cronenberg movie without the intelligence.

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