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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Film Review | Black Swan

Bird Watching

by Thomas Delapa

In the jarring clash between high and low art that is Black Swan, let’s just say that culture takes it in the neck. Darren Aronofsky’s freakish thriller set in the ballet world even turns Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake into an ugly duckling.

For this dark backstage fantasy of ambition, sex and jealousy, Aronofsky (The Wrestler) shines a spotlight on Nina (Natalie Portman), a mousy ballerina with more Freudian baggage than Norman Bates. A 30-year-old virgin, Nina lives with her controlling, passive-aggressive mother (Barbara Hershey), who gave up her own dance career when she had Nina.

In the featherweight script (by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin), Nina’s art takes over her life—the plot is a pale, sexed-up knockoff of Michael’s Powell’s classic The Red Shoes. Nina’s dream comes true as a nightmare once the company’s crude, autocratic, but so French director (Vincent Cassel) chooses her for the double lead roles of the White Swan and the Black Swan in Swan Lake.

Aronofsky’s bizarre Frankenstein creation is sort of like David Cronenberg grafted onto Margot Fonteyn. As the fragile and neurotic Nina, Portman comes up short as a prima donna, skittishly tip-toeing through the movie less like a swan than an anorexic deer caught in the footlights. Aronofsky’s camera follows Portman relentlessly, framing her in a series of mirrors that reflect her own narcissistic and delusional traps.

But Aronofsky cheats in both plot and his urban-gothic visuals, dancing around what is real and what are Nina’s paranoid delusions. Just as Nina gets the lead, she’s haunted by a doe-eyed rival dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who’s everything—confident, sexual—that Nina isn’t. Aronofsky peels away the beauty and grace to find the pain and obsession underneath, yet he also simplistically (and perhaps chauvinistically) reduces Nina’s neurotic compulsions to her fear of sex.

This is where Black Swan takes a nose-dive. Despite its guise as a modernist, female-centered psychodrama, underneath it’s mostly lurid male fantasy, trumpeting on one pole Portman’s sex-starved nymph and Kunis’ wanton, lesbian leanings on the other. Somehow Nina wins the lead role, despite her lack of oomph as the Black Swan. The director is fond of sexual euphemisms to criticize Nina’s rehearsals. When he’s not French-kissing her to tap into her inner vixen, he’s yelling “Let it go!” as if she’s making a porn movie, not a ballet. Lily’s rehearsals, on the other hand, are sultry and seductive. “She’s not faking it,” he sneers at Nina. This is not your father’s George Balanchine. Achtung, you don’t need a German dictionary to figure out that the shadowy Lily is Nina’s doppelganger diva, whether real or imagined.

Black and white or in living color, Black Swan tries to soar with the eagles, but crash-lands into high-toned kitsch.


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