In technical terms, Darren Aronofsky certainly knows how to make a movie. Beautifully shot in pastels and greys, Black Swan is expertly cut, has a nice rhythm and makes the audience feel it’s on stage during some very complex dance sequences. It even resists the obvious pull toward the two-hour mark, mercifully ending at just over 100 minutes. Yet the story of a ballet dancer trying to excel in the performance of her life is so unbearably clichéd, it’s hard not to laugh.
From the dragon-lady mother (Hershey), who transfers her own failed ambitions to her daughter, to the monomaniacal choreographer (Cassel) who tells his dancers to “seduce us,” to the protoganist herself, a virginal twenty-something named Nina (Portman) who knows nothing but the ballet, Aronofsky doesn’t come up with a single original character, line or idea.
Nina pursues the idea of perfection, but of course, as every armchair psychologist knows, there is no such thing. If there were, it would certainly not be Nina’s squeaky-clean virginity. Thomas, the choreographer, knows this too, so in order to help her perform her double role as the white and the black swan in Swan Lake, he begins to torture her a little bit. He teases her with a couple of kisses and invites her to his apartment to ask whether she’s had a boyfriend.
Even Aronofsky seems to have realized that something more is needed here, so he adds some lesbian sex and kinky self-mutilation, but the film never really complicates the solid “women need penetration in order to grow as people and artists” thesis. Introducing Kunis after half an hour as Nina’s alter-ego in a pedestrian, black-and-white doppelgänger-scenario is a pitiful last-ditch attempt to get things going in the right direction, and she does turn out to be the only person who actually puts some spark into the whole arrangement.
Aronofsky’s 2006 film The Fountain may have been a load of New Age blather twisted around a forced love story, but at least it had something unexplained and mysterious. His subsequent film The Wrestler may have lacked originality in its storyline, but it was definitely a very moving human drama. Black Swan is simply profoundly boring.
BLACK SWAN | Directed by Darren Aronofsky (USA 2010) with Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey. Opens January 20