Black Swan is bold, daring, challenging – and as campy as Mommie Dearest. If it manages to be a dark horse winner at the next Academy Awards, we can no longer carp about the Oscars ignoring comedies.
I don’t mean this derisively. Director Darren Aronofsky, one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, has committed his considerable skills to another thrillingly gonzo project: the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), an unstable ballerina who begins to unravel just as she’s been awarded the biggest role of her career, that of the lead in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Aronofsky likes to gamble – he plowed ahead with the unmarketable metaphysics of The Fountain and worked with Mickey Rourke on The Wrestler – but this time the risk doesn’t offer a reward.
Every aspect of Black Swan has been cranked up to a deafening volume – the emotions, the performances, the cinematic techniques. The film is hysterical from start to finish. Fitting, you would think, for a movie about a mind coming apart, yet Aronofsky piles on the DRAMA until things cross over into that most unholy of places for serious artists: the land of camp.
Consider the musical score, the picture’s brashest element and also, I’d argue, its Achilles’ heel. Composer Clint Mansell, a regular collaborator with Aronofsky, not only includes healthy chunks of Tchaikovsky’s original composition, he also weaves musical motifs from it into his own work. The result is overpowering. It’s not only that Tchaikovsky’s music is complete as art on its own (listening to “Swan Lake” or “The Nutcracker,” you feel there is no need for dancing, even though both were designed as ballets). The problem with using Tchaikovsky so extensively in Black Swan is that with all of this bombastic music swirling about, everything else – the images, the dialogue, the plot – feels like piling on.
And boy is that stuff piled on. Rather than reining in the drama to contrast with the music, Aronofsky competes with the score. And so everything is played bigger, in accordance with the swelling strings and crashing chords. Throughout, swish pans and jump cuts are used for shock effect, the sex is amped up to silly extremes and the gore – yes, there is gore – becomes ridiculous. Nina’s hallucinations initially have a creepy edge – often they’re variations on her image in the movie’s many mirrors – then they grow ludicrous, until we’re forced to watch poor Winona Ryder repeatedly stab herself in the face with a nail file.
Ryder plays Beth, the featured dancer Nina means to replace. As bad as Ryder is, her copious overacting is outdone by Barbara Hershey as the film’s other villainess: Nina’s domineering mother. Keeping Nina imprisoned in a girlish room and obsessing over the length of her daughter’s nails, Hershey’s mother is a laughably monstrous creation. When she badgers Nina into eating a celebratory piece of cake early on, it’s as if Hershey is purposefully trying to channel the legendarily bad performance of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest.
Aronofsky certainly has loftier ambitions. He means to be nothing less than operatic. This can be done at the movies – There Will Be Blood comes to mind from recent years. Similarly, ballet and the cinema needn’t be mutually exclusive. The Red Shoes, a Technicolor extravaganza from 1948 that also centers on a ballerina driven to despair by her art, exquisitely managed both. As for psychological thrillers – which Black Swan ultimately is – the best ones are a little crazy as they take us into their tortured subject’s head (Vertigo, anyone?)
The difference is that these films are all carefully calibrated – the melodrama and madness is managed, not unleashed in a torrent. In a way, Black Swan forgets the lesson stage actors learned at the dawn of the cinema. Film is inherently intimate, meaning the large gestures of the theater needed to be dialed down to fit this new scale. Black Swan isn’t only scaled for a ballet stage. It’s playing to the top balcony, back row.