In Black Swan, the new psychodrama directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), Natalie Portman looks harrowed and anguished even when she’s happy — maybe especially when she’s happy. As Nina Sayers, a young ballerina whose heart is set on dancing the White Swan/Black Swan in an artsy production of Swan Lake, Portman puts on quite an Oscar-baiting show — sobbing, suffering physically and mentally, picking pieces of flesh off of herself. She has the physique for the role, but she doesn’t move like a ballerina; she’s graceful, but even in character as an uptight young woman who has the technique cold but can’t surrender herself to the dance, Portman just seems like a very conscientious actress going through tormented motions. And that’s true of her performance offstage, too.
Black Swan is a high-pitched affair that sometimes risks silliness and sometimes achieves it. The risk is important — the movie is nothing if not impassioned — but overall the film is too rigidly schematic to be truly wild. Underneath the twisted eroticism that slowly gathers, Aronofsky and his writers (Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, John McLaughlin) find nothing much but an old, tired theme of duality — more tired yet, the Madonna/whore duality. Nina meets a fellow member of the company, Lilly (Mila Kunis), a looser dancer and a looser person in general. Under Lilly’s tutelage, Nina finds it in herself to relax into pleasures of the flesh — the flesh Nina is otherwise too busy neglecting or punishing. For me, Mila Kunis, a heretofore amusing minor actress, took center stage; her Lilly, alive to everything and not sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, is a relief from Nina’s wallowing in despair, her issues with her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey) and on-the-make director (Vincent Cassel). Kunis became what I looked forward to.
But mostly we’re stuck with Nina as she unravels. At times, when Nina starts hallucinating about various self-mutilations and freakish transformations, Aronofsky ventures a few steps too far into David Cronenberg territory. But Cronenberg, the director of such body-conscious horror-dramas as The Fly and Dead Ringers, would have brought a frosty intellectual beauty to Nina’s mad visions; here, it’s just ugly, borderline schlocky. Aronofsky has a fine cinematographer (Matthew Libatique), but most of the movie is drab hand-held business, when it might’ve benefited from a locked-down, classical style. In a handful of scenes, Winona Ryder, as a viciously miserable star ballerina pushed into retirement, throws off enough Joan Crawford camp and legitimately felt pain to shake the movie up. Her scenes opposite Portman have a juicily catty subtext: There was a time when your role — your movie — would have been mine, you bitch. (For all I know, Ryder was warmly supportive of Portman on set and brought her cupcakes every afternoon; but where’s the fun in that?)
A ballerina’s life is no picnic, and the art may draw more than its share of driven, neurotic young women, but past a certain point the central conflict — whether poor little Nina will get her head squared away and rise to greatness — seems kind of remote and rarified. It certainly doesn’t intersect with very many concerns the rest of us have, and it doesn’t have the style or story to pick up the slack. For all its freaky-deaky identity games and weird gore and panting lesbian action, what Black Swan resembles more than anything is one of those tepid movies of the ’70s in which nice white girls, oblivious to common worries of money and life, spent the whole picture moping before finding themselves. It’s a very first-world-problem movie, in which sheltered Nina has the luxury of wigging out and enjoying both the misery of being hated and, at last, the doomed ecstasy of being loved.