Paleo Retiree writes:
I was amazed how uninspiring I found this 2010 ballet-world-set psychological horror film. Natalie Portman plays a super-perfectionist, frigid (but yearning for release) ballerina who’s given the lead in a new version of “Swan Lake.” The movie is devoted to trying to get you to experience things as Portman’s character does, so you’re always very, very close to her — following her onto the stages and into the rehearsal rooms of Lincoln Center; tracking her as she hurries down the sidewalks and through the corridors of the Upper West Side; inspecting the scrunched-up muscles in her forehead; sharing her shallow breathing; dodging or getting fascinated by mirrors; scrambling fantasies, fears and reality … The script gives her a frustrated, pushy mother (Barbara Hershey), an earthy rival at the dance company (Mila Kunis), and an is-he-being-sexual-or-not? choreographer boss (Vincent Cassel).
Director Darren Aronofsky (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream”) has a taste for both high culture and dramatic intensity that I can enjoy, and he’s clearly a smart, thinking guy — “The Black Swan” is full of film and lit references, doubles and strategies. The film delivers some overwrought, fruity, near-camp moments that are transporting and fun in the shamelessly-flamboyant mode; Portman is as lovely as can be; the glimpses of Manhattan’s Upper West Side cultural life are accurate and interesting; Barbara Hershey swings for the fences as the scary mom; and Kunis and Cassel both show off interesting mixes of swagger and vulnerability. Credit where credit is due: the film has more than its share of artistic and entertainment daring, especially in the context of today’s movies.
But “The Black Swan” is a long way from being in the class of “Repulsion,” “Carrie” or “The Red Shoes,” a few of its more obvious inspirations. Props to everyone involved for a lot of commitment, but (for my tastes, anyway) the script is lacking in slyness and wit; the direction is ‘way too pushily “immediate” (half the movie consists of handheld shots over the shoulder of Natalie Portman as she walks anxiously around); and I found Portman’s performance tiresomely one-note. She plays her good-girl character’s gaunt, keyed-up inner anxiety and almost nothing but. A few fleeting moments of relaxation and sensuality that the character experiences — Portman does these moments well — came as a HUGE favor to this particular audience member. All that said, I’m still wondering why I couldn’t object to Catherine Deneuve’s performance in Polanski’s “Repulsion” on the same basis. Like “The Black Swan,” “Repulsion” sets out to convey the subjective experience of a terrified, deteriorating personality, and like Portman, Deneuve was a beautiful but limited actress. Yet I’m happy agreeing with the general film-buff consensus that “Repulsion” is a classic and Deneuve’s performance in it is iconic. Hmmmm … Well, maybe my objections to “The Black Swan” boil down to the film’s up-to-date visual language. Maybe I’m just an out-of-it old fogey who couldn’t find the film’s groove, and maybe “The Black Swan” really deserves to be praised as “Repulsion” for the reality-TV set.
Short version: Nice try, but when the film wasn’t being monotonous it was being annoyingly frantic and strident. Among Aronofsky’s films, “The Black Swan” is more akin to “The Wrestler” (which I also found dreary) than to the super-stylized and exciting (if grueling) “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream.” My wife had a hard time staying awake thru the movie, and it took us three evenings to finish watching it.