My brother didn’t much care for Black Swan. He said the characters were less archetypal than one-dimensional, the story just a string of tired clichés, and the tone a discordant mess of ostentatiously Serious Drama and stereotypical horror tropes. I myself enjoyed the hell out the movie, but I couldn’t disagree with any of that—except, perhaps, the last part. The tone never struck me as discordant because I never took Black Swan seriously. If director Darren Aronofsky wanted his ballet extravaganza to say something meaningful and insightful about art or perfectionism or gender binaries—and I suppose he did—I don’t think he succeeded in that. But so what? I don’t care about his intention. Regardless of what it what it was meant to be, Black Swan is an absolutely decadent melodrama, amped up to a shriekingly high pitch, resplendent with all of Aronofsky’s mesmerizing cinematic style. That’s enough for me.
Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, an ambitious, driven soloist in what is clearly meant to be the New York City Ballet. Nina gets her shot at making principal when ballet master Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to cast her as the lead in his new production of Swan Lake. It’s a huge, potentially star-making honor, but Leroy’s open skepticism in demure Nina’s ability to portray the passionate, dangerous Black Swan—coupled with Nina’s fascination/repulsion with Lily (Mila Kunis), a sensual new soloist in the company—begins to unravel the ballerina’s already fraying nerves.
Let’s get this out of the way first: The relationship of Black Swan to the real art of ballet is a shaky one. For starters, there’s never just a single dancer holding down a major role in a big company production like Swan Lake (three or four dancers alternate from night to night), and one could make the argument that Nina’s cold technical expertise would lend itself better to the Black Swan’s scene, a demandingly virtuosic show-stopper, than the White Swan’s, which tend to require more emotion and warmth. Furthermore, both Portman and Kunis are too stiff (particularly in the hands and arms) to be entirely convincing as ballerinas. (One has to wonder why Aronofsky didn’t follow the example of The Red Shoes, The Turning Point, and—hee!—Center Stage and cast trained dancers in their stead.) But never mind. The substance of ballet isn’t the point here (though the ballerinas’ obsessive manipulation of their toe shoes is a great naturalistic touch); Black Swan is concerned with the medium’s atmosphere, its undercurrents, and the movie nails that with precision.
Honestly, is there any dramatic art more rooted in elemental, archetype-driven storytelling than classical ballet? Swan Lake actually might be the perfect example of that, with White Swan Odette and Black Swan Odile providing the quintessential Virgin/Whore binary. Black Swan takes that and runs with it, painting its cinematic story with ballet’s broad strokes, so simple that the whole thing could be pantomimed. Just as there’s little nuance in Odette’s purity and Odile’s malignancy, Black Swan doesn’t bother to shade the contrast between Nina’s stunted sexuality and Lily’s unabashed carnality.
Of course Swan Lake is romanticizing its binary and Black Swan is literally portraying it as a horror show, complete with freakish reflections in mirrors and grisly hallucinations, but neither work could be described as subtle. Portman’s performance is an over-the-top marvel, Nina’s every emotion writ large across her face, and Kunis creates a charismatic photonegative, all joyful, brazen id. Only Cassel has something to do besides embody an extreme, and he does so shrewdly, meandering about classical ballet’s muddied line between seduction and coercion (Manon, anyone?) with unsettling presence and a calculating gaze.
But story is rarely that important in ballet, and it’s the least interesting thing in Black Swan too. Aronofsky might have allowed ballet to consume the storytelling, but the imagery is all cinema, ravishingly so. Swan doesn’t achieve the same level of unforgettable visual power as, say, Requiem for a Dream, but it’s still an obvious descendant, illustrating Nina’s slipping sanity with astute camerawork (sometimes jittery, sometimes weightless), liberal use of doubles and reflections, and gorgeous color and shadow. Rodarte’s ballet costumes don’t look particularly practical for the stage, but on film they’re spectacular, so wantonly birdlike that Nina’s delusions of avian transformation don’t seem too far-fetched. And with Tchaikovsky’s hyper-romantic Swan Lake score undergirding all the exquisitely filmed melodrama, Black Swan achieves moments of tone poem–like beauty.
The flamboyant artistry of the movie’s surface makes it tempting to imagine depths to match, but to my mind, they’re just not there. The dichotomy between Nina and Lily is contrived and simplistic (contrasting Nina’s bulimia and Lily’s appetite is a particularly flimsy touch), and the treatment of the self-destruction in perfectionism is relatively powerful but too trite and facile to warrant much attention. Yet even if it’s a disappointment on an intellectual count, Black Swan demonstrates once again how much of a visual medium film truly is. Visually, Black Swan is a stunner. It might not have depth, but that doesn’t mean one can’t appreciate the splendor of its shallows.