Natalie Portman stars in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.”
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz
Starrring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Run Time: 108 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R
When I first emerged from a recent screening of “Black Swan,” I chimed in with my movie companion’s “mediocre, yet interesting” perspective on the film. As a few days passed and second thoughts came to the forefront, I realized I had been too generous because this, in fact, is a solidly bad movie, way beneath director Darren Aronofsky’s talent and repertoire, whose past projects include “Requiem for a Dream,” “Pi“ and “The Wrestler.”
“Black Swan” is dubbed a “psychological, dark thriller” supposedly between rivaling ballerinas, Nina (Natalie Portman) and Lily (Mila Kunis), both vying for the coveted lead role in an upcoming performance of the Swan Lake ballet by a prominent unnamed New York City ballet company. As it turns out, the greatest rivalry is not between the ballerinas at all, but actually between sweet, innocent, hard-working, obsessive Nina, and her dark alter ego who, like the black swan, is clawing its way out … literally and figuratively. Although Nina lands the part, it appears the role is not stable; but then, neither is she. Forging ahead, Nina must fight her demons, her paranoia and her foils. The latter comes in several forms: Firstly, there is the tattoo wearing, edgy yet effortlessly talented seductress Lily who is selected as Nina’s understudy (surprise, surprise); Secondly, there is her smothering, reactionary, live-in stage mother, played by Barbara Hershey. When her rail-thin ballerina daughter declines a piece of the 5,000 calorie yummy cake bought especially for her, Hershey, channeling Joan Crawford from “Mommy Dearest,” is shocked and insulted and threatens to throw the whole thing in the trash. Nina’s next hurdle is winning over the company’s manipulative choreographer Thomas (Vincent Cassell), who is a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen and knows exactly how to push Nina’s buttons. Last but not least, Nina must contend with Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), the bitter, past-her-prime prima ballerina who has been ousted from the lead role and the company. Let’s face it, this wouldn’t be a respectable ballerina movie without the rejected, aging ballerina.
All this drama and transformation seemingly takes place over an amazing short two-week period and the real winner is revealed by the ballet season’s opening night and the movie’s end. Is it Nina, or Nina? Under normal circumstances this would be the part when I say, “In the hands of a better director” … But this was in the hands of a better director. Clearly, even some of the best have their duds. It’s a rare few that bat a thousand. To Aronofsky’s credit, I get the appeal of the story line. In some ways, all the elements were there for what could have been artful, engaging high drama. Unfortunately, very early on it became cheesy, with cliché characters and lines, prompting snickers from the audience when humor was not intended—yikes!
Now, Aronofsky should not take the fall on his own. Sharing the credit is every supporting actor in this movie, with his or her over-the-top performance. The film’s star, Portman in her Oscar-baiting role, is largely to blame too for the film’s shortcomings. Where the others overact, she manages to underact. And I don’t mean that in a subtle, nuanced way. Her Nina has pretty much one pained expression throughout the film and very few lines to counterbalance the vapidity of her characterization. I will give her credit for getting her body in prima ballerina shape. It’s been well documented that she dropped 20 pounds from her already slight frame and practiced tirelessly to do her own dancing. That brings me to another point- “the dancing.” Believe it or not this is a ballet movie with no particularly appealing dance sequences. It appears the dancing was edited to death along with the white swan. This of course begs the question, why did Portman sacrifice nine months of normal eating and put herself through bodily pain in order to execute the dancing when there is no extensive or impressive dancing? Well, if Portman doesn’t get an Oscar (and she shouldn’t), dear God, please someone give her a Domino’s Double Topping Special.
For an infinitely better movie, with a ballet theme or backdrop, watch “The Turning Point,” featuring wonderful acting performances by Shirley McClaine and Anne Bancroft, as well as great ballet performances by real dancers Leslie Browne and Mikhail Baryshnikov in supporting roles.