Darren Aronofsky is a filmmaker with the chops to be a great director and the impulse to be a sensationalistic one.
In many ways, his films are of a piece: stories about obsessions and mysteries – and obsessions with mysteries. From his debut “Pi” to his newest, “Black Swan” (which bears a surprising resemblance to that first film), with stops at “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Wrestler” (and even “The Fountain”), Aronofsky makes films that pull you in and, every once in a while, deliver a jolt just for the fun of it. It’s as though he’s testing the audience, saying, “Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Now – you still with me?”
So it is with “Black Swan,” an energetic and sometimes unnerving story of obsession and the pressure that goes with it. This tale of a ballerina, played by Natalie Portman, isn’t “The Turning Point” or “Mao’s Last Dancer” or any of those other nicey-artsy stories of the drive to achieve the pinnacle of one’s art.
Rather, “Black Swan” is like a horror-movie version of “The Red Shoes” – or perhaps it’s “The Red Shoes” meets “Saw” – in which the quest for perfection drives the dancer slowly mad.
Portman plays Nina, a member of the corps of what appears to be the New York City Ballet. She has greater ambition than that – and she’s pushed by her manipulative and domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), whose own career was curtailed when she became a parent.
Nina catches the eye of the artistic director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel, perfectly egocentric and imperious), who is looking to replace his old star (Winona Ryder) with a discovery. For his new production of “Swan Lake,” he wants to combine the Swan Queen and the Black Swan so they’re danced by the same ballerina, to make a statement about the duality of good and evil in the characters.
He believes Nina, with her obvious perfectionism, is right for the Swan Queen. She’s delicate and artful, conveying the longing and loss of the role. Though he believes she’s too controlled to play the Black Swan, he casts her anyway, then tries to browbeat her into becoming the dancer he envisions.
Her true goad is a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who has wings tattooed on her back and who has the devilish attitude that Thomas obviously is seeking for the Black Swan. Nina becomes obsessed with Lily, convinced that she is trying to undermine and supplant Nina in the role.
Aronofsky makes Nina a cringing, even simpering presence at first, seemingly scared of her own shadow. Indeed, that may be one of the film’s flaws: She’s so lost in her own head that it’s hard to imagine her summoning the strength and discipline to wow Thomas into giving her the role. But it’s not hard to envision her being overtaken by her imagination.
Once she has the role, she gains a little more poise. But that is subverted by her own dark fantasies of failure and loss, some about being displaced by Lily, some having to do with the sudden breakdown of her own body.
She cracks the toenail on her big toe doing pointe work (or does she?). When she digs at a hangnail, she pulls away a painful-looking strip of skin, like a zipper down the back of her finger (or does she?). She has rough, scratched patches on her shoulder blades (is she, in fact, growing wings?). She sees doppelgangers for herself on the subway. Her reflection in the mirror seems to have a life of its own.
All of this might be grist for a compelling psychological unraveling. And Aronfosky certainly injects these moments with exquisite tension and a certain gross-out panache.
Yet, at some point, his horror-movie shocks turn a little silly. It’s nice to see a filmmaker taking leaps and chances – but one also has to admit when those efforts inspire laughter instead of chills. Aronofsky grabs you by the lapels, thrills you with the tension he creates – but when it comes to the big reveals, you’re either giggling at what he shows you or already way ahead of him.
It’s not that there’s not craft here; there is. He’s a director with distinct gifts. But in this film, unlike in, say, “Requiem for a Dream,” where he did some of the same things, his choices don’t ramp up the stakes but, too often, undermine them.
It’s not Portman’s fault that the character seems like such a drip in the early going; it’s a testament to her craft that she can make us care about Nina in spite of that. Portman keeps you watching, even as Aronofsky defies you to take the ride seriously.