There's definitely no grey area with Black Swan. Precisely because the film is so brazenly audacious, it's sometimes risible and yet, for the same reason, is always compelling, impossible not to watch with fascination, whether avid or appalled. In this backstage adaptation of Swan Lake, Darren Aronofsky has made one of those rare movies that gets right in your face and demands a response: Love me, hate me, just don't mess with Mister In-Between.
I confess to camping out at both extremes. On first seeing, and disliking, it last fall at TIFF, I was struck only by the risible stuff, by scenes that seemed so literal-minded they cried out for a new title - Requiem for a Metaphor, maybe. But after a recent second viewing, I came to admire the method in the madness and, eerily, to realize that my two different reactions to the picture were a perfect reflection of the picture's theme - the psychic tension between opposites, the inner battle between our warring selves. I hated the film, I loved the film; apparently, I was the film.
Let me explain. Without wasting a second, the first frames blast onto a dance stage right to the prologue of the classic ballet, with a riveting close-up of the moment when Von Rothbart casts his deadly spell on the white swan. But wait. Turns out this is a performance-anxiety dream, and the dreamer is Nina (Natalie Portman) who, a featured dancer in a New York company, awakens among the stuffed animals of her virgin-pink bedroom.
Soon, however, the same Nina gets cast in the very part she dreams about, obliged to dance both the doomed innocent swan and its evil counterpart. In other words, that opening sequence is a dream and it's not. In her slumbering mind, a spell has indeed been cast on Nina. Already, the real is bleeding into the metaphoric, until art's staged pretense becomes inseparable from its psychological truth.
Everything that follows builds on and compounds that blurred state. For example, when Thomas, the company's manipulative artistic director (Vincent Cassel), says that his version of Swan Lake will "strip it down, make it visceral and real," he could be speaking for Aronofsky himself - the one's staged production neatly melds with the other's backstage film. It's inevitable, then, that Nina will encounter her doppelganger, her dark twin, among the other characters. In fact, she finds two black-clad doubles: her over-protective mother (Barbara Hershey), who possessively wants to imprison her in a perpetual childhood, and the rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) who jealously tempts her down the destructive path of drugs and sex.
Personally, Nina has no wish to explore that path. Artistically, though, it's essential. Her dancing is technically beautiful, superbly suited to the white swan, but it lacks the seductive abandon required for the noir half of the role. Knowing this, Thomas (in another echo of Aronofsky) keeps insisting that she tap into her primal side: "Performance is not just about control. It's about losing yourself." Translation: Nina must destroy the sweet, pure girl in order to liberate the bold, mature artist. But that idea terrifies her, and with good reason - as we know from horror movies, metamorphosis can be deadly.
So cue the horror movie conventions: the multiple mirror images, the blood that flows, the nightmares that may or may not have any waking credibility. Yet, once more, these fictional tropes also enjoy a basis in fact. The dancers' rehearsal space is actually a hall of mirrors - they're trained to study their reflection. Ballet is actually a brutal profession - limbs get misshapen, feet do bleed. And performance is actually anxiety-inducing - nightmares are commonplace.
At this point, as we're drawn deep inside Nina's fearful psyche, it's becoming hard to distinguish the actual from the imagined. The bloody scratches on her back are surely real - in a physically punishing business, she's given to self-mutilation. But when those scratches morph into inky scales and then black feathers, or when she wraps her rival in a lesbian embrace and then gets mean with a shard of glass … well, these are the way-over-the-top sequences where the film doesn't just "lose itself" but its audience too. This is the risible stuff.
Or is it? The doings in the original Swan Lake are laughable at a literal level but poignant and lovely when viewed metaphorically. Maybe Aronofsky, in retelling the story and reshaping the imagery for a different medium, deserves the same respect. More profoundly, maybe he's upping the thematic ante by adding a further element to the ballet's explorations of the tensions between opposites - that is, art's own tension between the literal and the symbolic, and the consequent wavering of the audience between dismissive laughter and engaged emotion.
Either way, there's none of the sentimentality that marred Aronofsky's work in The Wrestler, another tale of public performance and private ennui. Here (save for a clichéd turn from Winona Ryder as an aging diva), he's uncompromisingly daring, and has found in Portman a brave ally. Shot mainly from the waist up, her dance scenes are believable enough, but it's her broader portrayal that keeps us in thrall. In one sense, she's reminiscent of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion - brittle, child-like, hallucinating, slowly going mad. But in this case the madness is purposeful, even deliberate, a dark pursuit in the service of art. Yes, there's method in it, no more so than at the climax when the final set of twinned opposites, the creative act and the destructive impulse, are wed to the ungodly incantation of these disturbing last words: "It was perfect." And perhaps it is.
- Directed by Darren Aronofsky
- Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin
- Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis
- Classification: 14A