Copernicus has some issues with Aronofsky's THE BLACK SWAN!
We learned last year at Butt-Numb-A-Thon that one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite films is THE RED SHOES. It has a fairy tale ballet-within-a-film, where, with some demon shoes as a catalyst, the dancer is ultimately consumed by her own passion -- she dances herself to death. In the outer film, the protagonist must devote her life, body and soul, to her obsessive ballet director to reach her full potential. Ultimately, her life mirrors that of the character she plays in the ballet. BLACK SWAN might as well have been called THE BLACK SHOES, because the idea is utterly identical. Sadly, the execution is not. In nearly copying a masterpiece, Darren Aronofsky is trying to steal fire from the gods, and he’s simply not up to the task. The film isn’t a disaster -- many will find plenty to like, but for me it was a spectacularly ambitious failure.
Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, an aspiring ballet dancer with remarkable technical ability, but little passion. The ballet-within-a-film here is SWAN LAKE. Nina has no problem playing the innocent and graceful White Swan role, but she struggles with the darker side that she also must portray, that of the Black Swan. That is, until she becomes a thrall to her ballet director, played by Vincent Cassel. As she becomes jealous of a rival, Lily, played by Mila Kunis, struggles with her obsessive mother (Barbara Hershey), and has a confrontation with the dancer she replaced, Beth (Winona Ryder), the dark side of Nina emerges. Ultimately, just as in THE RED SHOES, the characters and events in the production are mirrored in the outer film.
One thing I admire about Darren Aronofsky is his ambition. Anyone who will try to make a film marrying conquistadors and Hugh Jackman as Buddha on a spaceship rock at the end of time at the very least has gargantuan balls and a touch of insanity. He’s also capable of producing incredible looking films, and often of coaxing great performances out of actors. BLACK SWAN has all of these things -- it is a little crazy, has great acting all around, and it looks incredible.
The problem with BLACK SWAN is the same problem that most of Aronofsky’s films have -- he’s incapable of subtlety. Well, nearly, because THE WRESTLER, Aronofsky’s best film, is not as in-your-face as it could have been -- it at least had quiet moments where Micky Rourke’s fascinatingly ruined face did most of the work. But look at THE FOUNTAIN -- it is a pastiche of bombastic moments strung together by shouts and whispers. And subtle is the last word you’d use to describe REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. In BLACK SWAN, Aronofsky’s Achilles heel is front and center. He’s the Meatloaf of directors -- when he wants to convey an emotion he spells it out exactly, festoons it with mawkish details, and cranks up the volume on the soundtrack. Rather than simply inspiring awe, which the film does in fits and starts, and confidently leaving it at that, here the score swells to a near-deafening tone to drive home what you are supposed to be feeling. For me it has the opposite effect, becoming the dramatic equivalent of a laugh track. And charters don’t just get angry, they rage. They shout, hurl projectiles, seduce, and destroy. Yes it is supposed to be operatic, but there is a fine line between opera and soap opera, and Aronofsky pushes right up to the edge and breakdances on it.
Strangely, it is these operatic touches that almost work. The characters are painted on an outsize canvas, making their struggles larger than life. Natalie Portman gives the antithesis of her wooden prequel performance.. She truly undergoes a transformation, starting as one character and ending as another. Her acting is superb, made all the harder by an incredibly physically challenging role -- she has to not only nail the supremely difficult acting beats, but dance while doing it. When her character goes over the top, it isn’t her acting that takes me out of the movie -- she actually manages to pull it off -- it is the choices made by the director.
A manifestation of Aronofsky’s lack of subtlety is his incessant literalism. It is almost as if he doesn’t understand that metaphors allow you to get at a point without spelling it out. Symbols are a tool for one thing standing in for something else -- they don’t actually have to become the thing, and if they do, they lose their magic, which is derived from, or at least enhanced by, obliquity. In THE FOUNTAIN, rather than using references to Buddha as a symbol or metaphor, Hugh Jackman’s character literally is Buddha in another reality, complete with a real tree of life. Similarly in THE BLACK SWAN, it is obvious that some of the essence of the character of the Black Swan from the play is going to spill over into the character Nina’s life. But in case you miss that subtlety, here Nina literally becomes the Black Swan, complete with blood-red eyes, sprouting black feathers, wings, and bird legs. Why use a paintbrush to make a point when you can use a hammer?
In RAGING BULL, Scorsese used the camera as only a master at his level could. He planned each swooping shot and matched it to the fight choreography. The breathtaking effect was to make you experience every fight at a visceral level. Aronofsky is ambitious enough to try to play in this league, using audacious camera moves and staging for the ballet scenes, and while it is an admirable attempt, it doesn’t succeed in casting a spell, or selling Natalie Portman as a true dancer. What I come away with is the less appreciation at the attempt, and more evidence of the obvious gulf between Aronofsky and Scorscese. Aronofsky has outsize ambition, and shoots for the top tier but doesn’t quite have the skill to pull it off. Instead he’s more in the realm of M. Night Shyamalan or Brian De Palma -- people who have some talent, and have hit a home run before, but now keep swinging for the fences so hard that they more often strike out. Now their films are often borderline farcical, and not always so borderline.
You know the uncanny valley -- the idea that computer generated cartoon characters are fine for us, but when they start getting close to, but not quite, human, they become grotesque? BLACK SWAN exists in an Oscar uncanny valley. Operatic moments, seduction, lesbian makeouts, and overdrawn life-or-death situations are all fine in exploitation films or films based on serials. But when used in a “serious” film, they can start to get silly. Pretension isn’t always their best partner -- it nearly always ruins what would otherwise be a great time.