Writers: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder
Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique
Studio/Runtime: Twentieth Century Fox, 103 min.
What is the cost of perfection in art and what lines must be crossed to attain it? These are the questions being asked by Natalie Portman’s Nina, the crystalline ballerina at the center of Black Swan auditioning for the lead in a production of Swan Lake. It’s the role that she’s literally been living for, as she’s foregone friendship, sexual relationships and in fact every other human aspect of existence in her quest for the role, always under the prodding scrutiny of an unhealthy relationship with her vile mother. But Swan Lake requires its lead to play not just the virginal, flawless white swan but also her doppelganger, an overtly sexualized character whose freedom and lust for life make for a nearly impossible fit with Nina.
Of course Nina is cast as the lead nonetheless, but with this comes an exhortation to explore the darker side of herself by both the ballet director, played in over-the-top lecherous fashion by Vincent Cassel, and her understudy, Mila Kunis, who’s just as suited for the role of the Black Swan as Nina is for the White. If all of this sounds overly didactic and reductive, a literal exploration of a world composed of black and white with no shades of gray, well, it is. Stark cinematography only emphasizes this to the point where it feels like Black Swan must be consciously attempting to counter the lurid but astounding palette of the original tragic ballerina film, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s masterpiece The Red Shoes. To say that The Black Swan leans heavily on the Madonna-whore complex is an understatement—even when Nina’s finally able to perform both parts, they can only be done individually, she can never embody aspects of both swans at the same time.
The task force of writers behind the film drained all subtlety out of the screenplay, which jumps through a series of polished but always mechanical sequences as we follow the gradual dissolution of Nina’s psyche. Like Nina herself, Aaronofsky is cold and calculating and the entire feature is manipulatively designed. He lets loose only once during the film, after Nina returns home from a night on the town, but even here he’s reliant upon that cliché of all films interested in doubling, mirrors. Almost no scene in the picture is bad, but they’re almost universally without either passion or empathy, less interested in the characters than in heavy-handed and obvious symbolism.
Black Swan is well made, there’s no denying that, and it completes its contract with the audience in giving Nina’s story an obvious parallel with Swan Lake. But its reductive sexual politics and simplistic themes keep it from any real depth, despite the craft on display from its entire cast (especially Kunis) and production crew, whose control over what we see is almost Kubrickian in its exactitude. The film still offers up simple thrills, but it falls well short of the greatness to which it aspires.