|Natalie Portman goes down in Darren Aronofsky's misogynist fever dream.|
I knew Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan was going to be bad. It's about an art form that basically operates over his head (in effect ballet is his antithesis) - and I didn't expect much in the way of insight into the aesthetics of elevation from a director who's the cinematic equivalent of Debbie Downer. And let's be honest, in technical terms I think we've already seen everything Darren Downer's got to show us several times already. Plus, Manohla Dargis liked it, which is almost never a good sign. And then Darren went to - wait for it - Harvard. So I knew the flick would be bad; the only question was, how bad would it be? And could it possibly be so bad (I half-hoped) that it actually turned out to be good?
Well, how to put this. It's bad, sure enough; REALLY bad. And yet that magic moment when its clumsy adolescent "tragedy" turns to glorious, fabulous camp never materializes; this grimly turgid turkey never takes flight. And that's because the film's not just bad, but vile in the same way that schlockfests like Sin City are; watching it is like coming upon your kid brother masturbating to some creepy piece of manga he downloaded while the babysitter wasn't looking. Sure, you can feel Aronofsky aping the approach to some sort of arty apotheosis, like a sumo wrestler lumbering after a butterfly; yet you know no genuine artistic climax can be in the offing, because everything in the film has been so crudely pre-determined. The movie can neither succeed nor fail, because nothing is ever at stake in it; it's the kind of "wild ride" in which we can see the tracks ahead of us from the very start, leading right into the ground. (This is why roller coasters, and the movies that imitate them, aren't art: you always know what's going to happen next - another "shock!"). And so despite its prevalent mood of forced hysteria, in artistic terms Black Swan can only lie there, quivering, like poor Natalie Portman does after somehow dancing the final act of Swan Lake with a six-inch shard of glass wedged in her stomach.
I know I'm supposed to critically "support" this kind of ridicule - but do I really have to? This thing was painful enough sitting through the first time; pondering it again is almost too much to contemplate. And where to begin, anyway? Black Swan is sheer idiocy from start to finish, a crudely calculated pastiche of tricks and tics from other, far better movies. (Indeed, as you watch it, and pick up quotes from movies as disparate as The Red Shoes, The Tenant and Repulsion, you wonder if something still counts as a "quote" if it has been translated into cinematic Klingon.)
The movie is, as I'm sure you've heard, about Natalie Portman falling apart as she prepares to dance both the "white" and "black" swans - Odette and Odile, not that those names are ever mentioned in the movie - in a new, "visceral" version of Swan Lake choreographed by the hilariously sleazy Vincent Cassel. The emaciated Portman (she went through a punishing regimen to simulate the physique of a prima ballerina in a matter of months) does look ravishing, and it's wonderful, after watching her drone on in Kurosawa drag in all those dreadful Star Wars duds, to see her acting again - she contributes a glowingly febrile kind of performance (indeed, at times she and the slimily intelligent Cassel - not to mention the glamorously ravaged Winona Ryder - almost make the movie worth watching). But in the end, her performance is all actressy nerves and hot air, because Portman has nothing to play but one pop cliché after another. "Nina," her character, isn't a character so much as a collection of dated tropes from anime (we half-expect her eyes to be twice normal size). She dresses in white and pink and still lives with her Carrie-wannabe Mom (a scary Barbara Hershey - that botox has not worn well!) because emotionally she's a control freak who's still a little girl - get it? (If not, I'm sure one of the stuffed animals she sleeps with will explain it to you.) And slowly, Little Miss Perfect begins to crack up under the pressure of her "perfection" in ways that only digital imagery has made possible. Indeed, when she finally gets in touch with her "black swan" side, Nina begins sprouting black feathers.
|Just what the dudes - I mean the doctor - ordered!|
And if you think I'm kidding about that "fetish" part, think again. None of the dim bulbs who've raved about this piece of trash ever mentions that Aronofsky concocted this supposed "psychological" thriller with the help of three other guys - together they seem to have operated like a team of fratboys diagnosing the damaged house bunny. And what do they think poor Nina needs to help her dance that challenging "black swan" role? Why, she needs to get felt up by an older man, masturbate, and then indulge in a lesbian sex scene (with the overripe Mila Kunis, above) - what else? At such moments the movie seems so stunningly retro in its sexual politics you're not sure if you want to laugh or cry - but you do know you want to kick Darren Aronofsky in the nuts, and hard.
Suspiria (at left), you're not as irritated, because his infantile sadism is so undisguised (and so pathetic somehow) - and, well, also because Dario's powers of stylization are so much stronger than Darren's. Although I did like the production design of Black Swan (even though there's nothing in it to match half of The Red Shoes, below). Portman looks particularly great as Odile, with crazy batwings taped to her eyes (at top), and a crown of thorns growing right out of her head. The gulag-chic look of the rehearsal halls and dressing rooms is likewise sick fun - although it's never really spooky.
Because face it, Darren Aronofsky's no Roman Polanski (as some have claimed) - please, the very comparison makes me gag. Polanski is a highly cultured man; whatever you may think of his sexual misdeeds, his films aren't sourced in Korean horror movies, they're sourced in a poetic, and tormented, vision of the horror of the real world (he spent his childhood literally fleeing from Nazis, not traipsing through Harvard Yard!). In Repulsion, for instance, the doomed heroine's paranoia seeps out of a thoroughly-imagined, utterly realistic mise-en-scène - and what's more, in the final haunting shot, we realize her traumatized psyche may have been caused by her sexually abusive father. She doesn't self-destruct - she has been destroyed, a plight that seems simply beyond the artistic reach of Aronofsky's terminal narcissism.
And let's just talk a moment about Swan Lake, and the world of ballet, shall we? Yes, ballet is a harsh physical mistress - and there's certainly a good movie to be made about that, one that questions whether any artistic achievement could be worth such a steep physical and psychological price. But Darren Downer couldn't care less about that, frankly - the issue of the satisfaction artistic achievement can bring never enters into his calculus; indeed, to him I'm not sure such satisfaction exists.
As for Odette and Odile - it is, in fact, the black swan who is the psychological mystery in Swan Lake, and the great challenge of the role is not sexual abandon, as Aronofsky would have it, but rather insight into the calculations of Odile's perversity - not to mention her charged relationship with her evil father. But in the girls-only psychosexual snake pit of Black Swan, none of this material can be allowed onstage or onscreen - things would get so complicated! - and thus the very essence of Swan Lake is hopelessly distorted. Likewise you'd never guess that the ending of the ballet is famously up for grabs - there are at least four variations that are commonly danced, although I think Black Swan marks the first time it has ended with hara-kiri.
|The Red Shoes sums up Black Swan in a single shot.|