Subtlety is not Black Swan‘s strong suit. The themes, the metaphors, the characters – they all pretty much identify themselves in the film’s first five minutes, like some abstract role-call. At first watch, it seems ludicrously clunky, but on reflection, it seems like a statement of intent – “Let’s announce what the film’s about now, get it over with, and just enjoy ourselves, okay?”. It’s like a stand-up firing off all the punch-lines at the start of their routine, with the rest of the show built purely on call-backs. But the key theme running through the tale, the lightness and darkness of one soul, duality and dichotomy, can be extrapolated as a commentary on the film itself. Much like the confused Nina (Natalie Portman) who’s drive to change from ‘White Swan’ to ‘Black Swan’ leaves her a little worse for wear, so too does Black Swan come unstuck by being neither classy or trashy enough.
To marry a grainy, realistic aesthetic with the high melodrama and fantastical flourishes is certainly an interesting idea, but it is perhaps better in theory than it is in execution. The fault does not lie with the direction – Aronofsky’s knows how to fill a frame, with tight, claustrophobic shots following the back of the protagonist’s head working to as great effect here as they did in The Wrestler. Nor does it necessarily lie with the thrills and spills, with tastes of wince-inducing Cronenbergian body horror among the “did you just see that?” visual trickery.
But it’s the incongruity of the two combined that just does not sit right. Had Black Swan been a more subdued character study of obsession and paranoia, it would have been a more satisfying experience. So too if it had gone the other extreme, and fully revelled in the giallo excesses it merely hints at. With all the tension and creepy imagery running through Black Swan, I had hoped that a truly bizarre gothic finale, or some Grand Guignol moment of bloody terror which may have excused the overwrought emotion, heavy-handed visual pointers (LOOK AT ALL THE MIRRORS! THE MONOCHROME! THE TATTOOS!) and tongue-in-cheek dialogue, but alas, one is not forthcoming. To reference Cronenberg again, The Fly struck the balance of emotional depth and pure grue perfectly (and it’s high art credentials were enshrined with composer Howard Shore’s opera adaptation).
Yet, there is still so much to like about Black Swan that one can forgive what it does or doesn’t do, as clearly this is how it is meant to be. Much like last year’s Shutter Island, it’s ripe old hokum but enjoyable and exhilirating both because of and despite of this. It’s a thrill-ride disguised as something deeper to appease the arthouse pallet. It’s about ballet, you see, yet still probably has as many yuks and gags as Drag Me To Hell, with a dark, and oddly cheeky, sense of humour on occasion.
Yet at its core has a potentially Oscar-winning performance from Natalie Portman. And if she goes home with the gold, it would be throroughly deserved, as she completely gives it her all. Of course, the hours of training each day over a year’s worth of preparation would have been for nought had she stumbled when it came to playing the transformation of Nina from naive sheltered waif to unhinged cauldron of anxiety. And although Nina is a hard character with whom to empaphise or fully understand, it is difficult to see how much more committed she could have been to the part, proving that the Star Wars prequels hadn’t sucked the life out her. Kudos also to Barbara Hershey as her overbearing mother, Mila Kunis as her would-be rival, Winona Ryder’s washed-up has-been, and Vincent Cassel’s posturing sex-squid of a director – rather cookie-cutter characters all, barely sharing more than one dimension between them, but equally played at full tilt.
If you go with the flow, and don’t expect anything deep and meaningful, you’ll find a rollicking yarn, filled with frills and spills. It will leave you with some pretty vivid and memorable images, but where it should get under your skin or twist your brain, it simply skims the surface, albeit with grace and poise. In the end, exciting and entertaining though it is, Black Swan at the same time delivers too much and not enough, ending up neither black or white, just a little grey.