Darren Aronofsky is a master at making beautiful films you never want to see again. Part of this has to do with the inherently unpleasant nature of the obsessions and addictions he chronicles: the heroin chase of Requiem for a Dream, the eon-spanning pursuit of doomed love in The Fountain, the thirst for a dying fame in The Wrestler. These are dark and unwelcoming stories, but Aronofsky presents them in such a way that their emotional impact becomes a physical one through an often dazzling use of sound and vision. Think of (respectively) Harry’s infected arm, Tomas’ physical martyrdom, or Randy the Ram’s gruesome flagellations. These moments aren’t observations by a filmmaker but inflictions upon an audience. Yet even though none of Aronofsky’s films could remotely be called fun, the ones that worked married the director’s fondness for skin-crawling discomfort with a commitment to telling a story populated by rounded characters. The pain only matters if it’s being felt by someone real, which is why, for instance, Tomas remains a caricature cobbled from rough ideas while Harry and Randy feel like genuine, breakable people. Black Swan, Aronofsky’s latest, feels like it’s meant to be a companion to Wrestler, in that it also deals with the relentless physical strain performers put on their bodies as well as the lengths someone will go to in order to achieve their dream, a theme common to the director’s works. But it feels closer to Fountain in its use of broad, messy strokes that rely too heavily on melodrama. That Aronofsky’s films are often trials to watch doesn’t necessarily rob them of their value; it’s only when he fails to live up to his promise, as he does here, that the destination isn’t worth the journey.
The film’s defining aesthetic is Aronofsky’s favorite: mounting dread mixed with the fear of physical injury. Cinematographer Matthew Libatque keeps the camera nervously and tightly fluttering around Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), an emotionally fragile ballerina in New York, to constantly highlight her mental state, while sound mixer Ken Ishii and sound editor Craig Henighan make things truly teeth-grinding with a focus on the gristly sounds of knuckles popping, tendons stretching, and toes gently tapping across the stage. The soundtrack is alight with mechanical groans and a twisted devotion to physicality that feels like you’re grinding your teeth. When Nina experiences the first of many injuries — a cracked toenail — it’s only the beginning of Aronofsky’s visual and aural onslaught. Nina’s on edge when the film begins: after years of dancing ballet but never rising to a lead role, she finally gets a shot when Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the head her company, casts her as the lead in their upcoming production of Swan Lake. The role is a dual one, requiring Nina to portray both the White Swan, a woman who was turned into a bird, and her evil twin the Black Swan, who seduces the White Swan’s lover, sending the White Swan into a spiral of depression until she throws herself off a cliff and dies. (Cursory research reveals this to be a pretty loose interpretation of the actual Swan Lake plot, but such are the needs of Aronofsky’s narrative.) Nina’s got the White Swan moves down pat — she’s precise, nervous, and constantly afraid of pretty much everything — but the Black Swan’s vibe is better captured by Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer who has the grace and adaptability that eludes Nina. The film plays out as a kind of meta version of the ballet within it, as Nina competes with Lily for status, success, and the respect and possible affection of Thomas.
That’s a remarkably simplified version of what happens though, stripped of the film’s exploration of Nina’s crumbling sanity as well as her hallucinations and possible dementia. She sees other women that resemble her on the street; she imagines that Lily’s face turns into hers on occasion; she develops a rash across her shoulder blade. Her personality is splintering, and she progressively finds herself torn between the slight woman she’s always been and the darker person she’s driven to be by her director and her desires. She’s also physically falling apart, suffering from bloody fingernails and other ailments that are as gruesome as they are fleeting: Nina will suffer some horrible break only to glance again and see that she’s unharmed. She’s an unreliable anchor for the story, and as a result, Aronfsky’s third-act leap from psychosis into full-on metaphysical manipulation feels phony and cold. Nina’s a cipher, a depiction of a good girl going bad who evokes sympathy in the moment but never feels like anything other than a thinly sketched version of a person. This is not entirely accidental. Aronofsky’s working in grand gestures here, loading the frames with black-white contrasts and giving the characters subtext as text. (The creepiest line from the screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin is probably Nina’s tearful “He picked me, Mommy” as she tells her mother about getting the lead in the show, delivering the line with a weary relief that hints at all manner of daddy issues left to fester on their own.) Like the ballet within, the film is meant to be much larger than life, emphasizing epic visuals instead of a coherent story. Yet as a result, the final product only works in fits and starts — a conversation here, a look there — and never comes together as a whole. Aronofsky’s made a film about a nervous breakdown but cast himself as the victim instead of the omniscient observer, and he’s content never bothering to make heads or tails of the delusions. They simply are.
For her part, though, Portman is captivating in the same way a wounded animal is, inspiring a sense of troubled curiosity about its survival. Already a small woman (she stands 5’3”), she lost 20 pounds to play Nina, and the close-ups of her skeletal frame are less than pleasant. She creates a skittish, believable portrait of a woman falling increasingly over the edge of sanity, but the tragedy of her portrayal is that it’s within a film so enamored of its own empty theatricality that it often overrides the actors. She’s a player moved around a stage, not a person. Kunis is good, too: this kind of breezy, sexually adventurous woman is right in her wheelhouse, and the best she’s been since Forgetting Sarah Marshall, though it’s also the darkest role she’s ever inhabited (save for the questionable American Psycho 2). Yet so much of the eerie nature of her relationship with Nina winds up being nothing more than a projection, a blast of smoke, that it’s as if she never existed.
Aronofsky gets into some interesting territory exploring the duality of performers and the torturous rituals they undergo to achieve something transitory, but he never quite makes it work. Nina’s tenuous grasp on reality leads to some fascinating twists and truly stunning visuals during the eventual performance of the ballet, but that’s ultimately all they are: pictures divorced from emotion, drawn merely to please a distant creator. The increasingly brutal punishments visited upon Nina feel not like a price being paid for art but like dull torture visited on someone for no other reason than that she was standing nearby. The director’s earlier works are difficult to watch (let alone revisit) for the powerful emotional toll they exact on the viewer, but Black Swan earns the same fate for a far less satisfying reason: it’s just not worth it.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.