After Many a Summer Dies the Swan
Also about a demanding public physical activity, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a giant step down from The Wrestler. A B-movie with humor, winning acting and the added Rocky do-or-die last chance for its bad-boy star, the latter made no big claims for itself. The pretentiousness of this heavily promoted new one has nothing to do with its Lincoln Center setting of highbrow culture. The fault is not in its stars but in blazoned misplaced merchandising of disturbing sex, psychosis and kink more than in the Mark Heyman-Andrés Heinz-John McLaughlin screenplay from Heinz’s story, although audience guffaws would indicate that viewers saw through it and were not amused in sympathy as they had been with Mickey Rourke’s flawed human Randy “The Ram” Robinson.
It would, of course, have been dauntingly difficult to come anywhere near definitive Repulsion’s fatal unraveling of a sexually and otherwise repressed young woman, where Polanski was wise not to surround Deneuve’s manicurist with glitz and gloss. It does not need fellow New Girl aspirant Lily (Mila Kunis) to slip some drug into a drink to bring out the lurid color and nature of Nina Sayers’ (Natalie Portman) would-be titillating lesbian, hetero and self-mutilation fantasies, for they run throughout as carrots to lure audiences.
And lure they certainly do. The sold-out Museum of Modern Art screening had to add a standby line, on the same evening that David Fincher answered questions upstairs following his The Social Network. Praised beyond their merits, both figure in the Museum’s The Contenders offering of films likely to be there next February 27.
Obsessed and obsessed about, a self-mutilator who wears sleep mittens and must keep cuticles and fingernails short to avoid serious scratching -- show-business mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) does the toenails -- Nina convinces no one affirming that she has had boyfriends and (shyly) is not a virgin. Her only life is the dance, where, no longer that young, she is picked from the ensemble to be the white Swan Queen and, as customary, also her evil double Black Queen.
At a new reading of Swan Lake, corps artistic director Thomas Leroy sees in this perfectionist what no one else does. Vincent Cassel overdoes it as this oily ballet master who asks for trouble choosing and driving the pale woman. She has no personal warmth whatever, and he and everyone acknowledge that her performance style is clear but frigid. Admonishing that she loosen up and unleash the hidden emotional flame that he alone knows is there within, he even makes casting-couch advances to light her fire, for which he is bitten, instead. Unfazed and trite, he “always knew you had it in you, little princess. Go take your bow!”
If not for the mind-game challenge, one wonders why he bothers with the uncooperative Nina, who as well offers other problems into the bargain. His methods in the past are not pictured but inferentially cannot have been all that different, a mix of hubris and high-mindedness, egotism and all-for-art. Former prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) is angered and vindictive over having been used and now forced out of the spotlight and the troupe, while newcomer Lily goes to great lengths to force her friendship and lifestyle on Nina, so much so that the friendless latter suspects a plot to usurp her coming glory.
It becomes apparent that a good part of what the camera catches is really the nightmare vision of the dangerously disturbed woman. The dénouement is pretty much a given, even to Nina’s nastily misplacing blame on partner David (Benjamin Millepied) for her own mid-performance fall. Although that finale is aurally stirring, it’s not the film’s doing but, rather, a crescendo tribute to Tchaikovsky’s popularly familiar climax to the 1877 ballet.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated “R” for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.)