“YOU ARE STIFF LIKE A DEAD CORPSE!”, barks high and haughty ballet instructor Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) at one point during Darren Aronofsky’s much-vaunted dance flick/horror Black Swan. Not loose and limber like a live corpse, you understand, but stiff. Like a dead one. That this line can be delivered with a straight face encapsulates all that is wrong and right with the film.
On the one hand, it presents a milieu high in self-regard and internecine strife; ripe breeding ground for portrayals of artistic tension and delicate brilliance. On the other, it is maddeningly pretentious, frequently silly, and seems to think that it has broken unchartered territory by suggesting that artists often suffer for their art, and that the best way to portray one’s duality of the soul is to chuck in an “is it real or isn’t it?” lesbian sex scene.
Many people are talking about Black Swan as though it’s an unqualified masterpiece, and while it is a million miles from achieving that status, only a fool would suggest that it’s without artistic merit. Natalie Portman is good for her Golden Globe and inevitable Oscar, while Cassel strengthens his reputation as a versatile man of general threat. Barbara Hershey, meanwhile, is convincingly distressing as a superannuated stage Mum from hell. The premise is intriguing, and the New York locations are bracing, lively and, thanks to the constantly tight framing of the characters, disorienting and impressively alien.
The big problem is that director Darren Aronofsky only has one gear: turbo-sledgehammer. While he definitely deserves credit for a bloody-minded commitment to his own vision, he directs films like he’s just been shot by ‘The Orgasmorator‘ gun from Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s equally ludicrous (for different reasons) Orgazmo. Because of this, Black Swan is all climax and no build-up; a massive shame. Instead of a more considered portrayal of one woman’s suffering which builds gradually and draws psychological horror from quieter moments and observations, Aronofsky is happy to go balls to the wall while simultaneously bringing out the big guns. The film hits a peak and simply stays there. No opportunity to make loud, stabby bangs on the soundtrack is turned down, neither does Aronofsky ever seem to tire of having things jump wildly into shot from the corner of the frame. Any potential shock value is relentlessly sanded down until a state of grimly expectant torpor, punctuated by the occasional unintentional laugh, is reached.
Black Swan is mostly good fun, and it is certainly something different – for which it should be applauded. However, it is also fundamentally silly: a farrago concocted by a master showman with almost nothing at all to say, and even less of a sense of irony. A director with a surer hand and a more finely-tuned sense of nuance could have turned this material into a genuinely unsettling masterpiece (a la Roman Polanski’s Repulsion). Instead it winds up as a weird, strangely laughable melange of Fight Club, Fame and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, not to mention his earlier “WE ARE ALL ADDICTED TO SOMETHING, DO YOU SEE!!!” brow-beater Requiem for a Dream.