There’s a moment when ballet impresario Thomas (Vincent Cassel), having taken a risk in casting the exceedingly demure Nina (Natalie Portman) as the schizophrenic dual lead in his new production of Swan Lake, explains that Nina will succeed so long as she lets go of her fear. “The only person standing in your way,” Thomas tells her, “is you.” But these words intended as reassurance, spoken fairly late in Black Swan, couldn’t sound more ominous. Nina’s capacity for confusing her internal ambivalence with some external, independent, diabolical force has by now been demonstrated in myriad scenes marked by vivid hallucination. We’ve come to presume that Nina’s only path to artistic transcendence is one that requires a morbid, perilously complete identification with her role.
Black Swan makes a fascinating companion piece to director Darren Aronofsky’s previous film The Wrestler. Both closely follow their protagonists through a crisis resulting at least in part from ambitions of athletic perfection. It’s possible that Nina would have arrived at the same crisis point without the pressures of ballet, but the film seems drawn to persuading us of a hypothesis concerning the psychological cost of zero body fat and immersion in a milieu that consumes and virtually cloisters those devoted to its craft. Aronofsky revels in the amplified cracking of sore toes, in close-ups of wounds, in the eeriness of rehearsal hall mirrors, invoking the funhouse and foreshadowing the proliferation of doppelgängers to come.
Then there’s Nina’s home life, that frilly pink bedroom where her attempt at the masturbation, as prescribed by the sleazy but shrewd Thomas, is overseen by a menagerie of plush toys—not to mention Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina’s mom, a failed ballerina herself who’s life now consists largely of suffocating her daughter with hysterical maternal concern. It’s interesting to note that in The Entity Hershey played a woman repeatedly sexually assaulted by an invisible demon, but almost no one believes her—everyone thinks that she’s crazy. By contrast, you might say that Nina’s tragedy emerges from the fact that no one acknowledges that she’s crazy, even though she exhibits kleptomaniac and masochistic tendencies. But the film that comes to mind once we get a sense of Nina’s fraught domestic life is Carrie, with its oppressive, infantilizing mom and naïve daughter whose ascendance to queenly status seems doomed. Like both Carrie and The Entity, Black Swan is a horror film. Like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, it’s a horror film that derives its particular effects through rigorous subjectivity.
Working from a script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin, Aronofsky keeps things moving at a remarkably clipped pace. Even on a second viewing I marveled at the way the film gallops through a lot of story without slackening. I think the problems with Black Swan become prominent when all that story seems to evaporate ahead of schedule. We start to feel this when Thomas repeats the exact same, maddeningly vague critique of Nina’s work—that’s she won’t “let go”—for the umpteenth time. Despite Portman’s radical transformation during the final act, the film never gives us any sense of what makes dance either dynamic or staid, sensual or frigid, because Aronofsky doesn’t appear to be the slightest bit interested in dance. Aronofsky is much more engaged in the deployment of his Goyaesque bestiary, perhaps echoing Ingmar Bergman’s somewhat similarly themed Hour of the Wolf, but a significant difference between Bergman’s film and Aronofsky’s is that the more obviously hallucinatory Black Swan’s hallucinations become, the cornier and more shallow the film’s entire notion of psychological frailty feels. Aronofsky deftly gets us worked up as the film builds toward its climax, but the entire last act finally feels silly, those escalating spasms of psychic unease that make a lot of fuss without taking us anywhere new, other than offering further attempts at shock with diminishing returns. Still, I heartily recommend taking Black Swan’s mostly riveting journey to the end of Nina’s psychic tether. I just don’t want to lead you to believe that there’s any place to fall once that tether slips out of her grasp.