“Black Swan” has generated a fair amount of controversy in the world of film criticism, but one thing you can definitely say about it is that it’s always engaging – even at those moments when you’re cringing at what you’re seeing on the screen.
Some critics have taken pains to point out that the movie is not “about” ballet dancing. I’m not sure that’s a meaningful comment, because without the ballet backdrop, little about the film would make sense. One could just as easily have said that director Darren Aronofsky’s previous feature, “The Wrestler,” was not “about” wrestling. Sure, absolutely – the movie was “about” a man who happened to be a wrestler, but without the backdrop of (and some knowledge about) the professional wrestling world, much of the point would have been lost.
I’m not sure what this says about me, but I probably know more than the average person about both professional wrestling and ballet. I’m no expert, make no bones about it. But I’ve watched professional wrestling off-and-on for more than 40 years now, and my wife and I have been season ticket holders for the Sacramento Ballet for more than 20 years. In both instances, I feel like I can instinctively tell good wrestling/ballet from bad wrestling/ballet. No, I don’t know what their lives are like offstage (one thing I do know is that ballet dancers seem to smoke an awful lot; I assume to keep their weight down), or backstage, so I can’t really offer an opinion on whether the atmosphere surrounding the ballet company that Aronofsky portrays onscreen in “Black Swan” is anything close to reality. But what I can say is that it feels real.
“Black Swan” proves that simply knowing the ingredients to a movie does not mean that you can guess how the receipe will turn out. And this one has a lot of familiar elements: there’s the aging star on her way out, there’s the overbearing mother, there’s the somewhat tyrannical, somewhat genius choreographer/director who dabbles in womanizing, there’s the dangerous, somewhat mysterious, perhaps from the wrong side of the tracks dancer, and of course, there’s the young, virginal, somewhat overwhelmed young ballerina suddenly thrust into the spotlight in the biggest role of her career.
Aronofsky takes this mix, which just as easily could be used to create a droll melodrama, and turns it into one of the trippiest experiences to be seen on the big screen in recent memory. The finished product made me think of “Altered States,” which I saw just about 30 years ago in Berkeley, the movie that didn’t always make a lot of sense, but you were sure captivated by what you were seeing on the screen. And in “Black Swan,” you’re never quite sure what you’re seeing, just as Nina (Natalie Portman) is never quite sure what she’s experiencing.
The lead performances are all noteworthy, beginning with Natalie Portman as Nina, the swan who thinks she’s the ugly duckling. Vincent Cassell is spot on as the ballet director, Mila Kunis is just fine as Nina’s opposite figure Lily, and Barbara Hershey is suitably frightening as Nina’s mother. But the real star of the movie is Aronofsky himself, who keeps the viewer guessing even when the ultimate outcome is fairly obvious from the beginning. But isn’t that what great filmmaking is all about?