Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Review: "Black Swan"
Desperately desiring to be profound but often profoundly silly, "Black Swan" takes high-minded American cinema down a notch or three. This unrelentingly serious drama about a ballerina's psychotic breakdown while preparing for the lead in "Swan Lake" is swamped by a hip-deep layer of theatricality and artifice.
Director Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler") and a trio of screenwriters present us with a trio of main characters, and one or two tertiary ones, who we do not for a second believe could exist in the real world. As Nina Sayers, the ingenue tapped to be the ballet company's new leading light, Natalie Portman draws a character so repressed and fearful, it's like she stopped growing at the age of 8.
Perpetually tremulous and paranoid, Nina makes for one pitiable protagonist.
After the aging star -- played by Winona Ryder, and doesn't that make us all feel old -- is given the boot, egomaniacal director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) taps Nina to play the Swan Queen, even though he has doubts about her ability to tackle the darker twin role of the Black Swan.
Thomas is every cliché of the domineering patriarchal artist rolled into one, right down to his insistence on bedding his leading ladies.
Lastly, and least credibly, is Mila Kunis as Lily, the new dancer who becomes Nina's understudy/doppelganger. With her imprecise but vibrant dancing style, Lily was born to play the temptress Black Swan, just as Nina was meant to be the pure, virginal Queen.
Kunis has the face of an angel and the voice of a Valley Girl (a perfect fit for her day job, voicing a TV cartoon character). Lily is carefree and flirtatious, and keeps seeking out the clearly unreceptive Nina for friendship, even after their encounters become progressively confrontational.
Barbara Hershey plays Nina's fantastically over-protective mother, who makes Mommie Dearest resemble June Cleaver. A former dancer herself, mother crushes her daughter with infantilizing TLC as if to prevent her from ever growing into something other than a "frightened little girl."
As if mother's projection of her failed aspirations onto her daughter wasn't obvious enough, Aronofsky and company hammer it home in one groan-inducing scene where she drops a mention to her own career: "The one I gave up to have you."
As opening night draws closer, Nina grows more and more anxious about her ability to perform -- and her mental state becomes more and more unhinged. After Lily is named her understudy, she becomes convinced the interloper is out to sabotage her career and take Nina's place at center stage.
The result is a lot of computer-generated imagery of Lily's face morphing into Nina's and back again. She even starts to develop a rash on her shoulder that matches the winged tattoo Lily just happens to have on her back.
And Portman and Kunis share a supposedly scorching bedroom scene in which the actresses elevate coyness into comedy.
Is Lily really just Nina's repressed sexuality bursting to get free? Are they disparate souls blending into one? Splintered fragments of Aronofsky's high-speed blender puree of Tchaikovsky's ballet?
Who knows? And, in the end, really cares?
This mush-brained psychological thriller is basically Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" as interpreted via "Fight Club," pressed through the sieve of a high school drama class festering with personality conflicts.
2 stars out of four