At times, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a gripping and hysterically entertaining experience. Most of the time, it's simply hysterical. The director's flipside movie to his highly acclaimed The Wrestler examines the fragile mental state of a young ballet dancer as she takes on the role of a lifetime and crumbles under its weight. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is perfect for the role of the White Swan in the new production of Swan Lake that impresario Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is preparing to stage. He doesn't quite see her as the Black Swan – she's too pure, too uptight, too frigid – but he sees potential. To successfully embody the dark half of Swan Lake's leading role, Nina will need to unlock the darker, stormier impulses that lay untapped within herself. Basically, in Aronofsky's rather simplistic vision, Nina really needs to get laid.
Darren Aronofsky has always had a rather limited view of his female characters. They're usually either princesses or crazy/slutty bitches, and in Black Swan we have a princess who needs to transform into a crazy/slutty bitch in order to fulfil her artistic potential. Surrounding the delicate Nina is a cluster of cartoon demons, all of whom play a part in her forcing her into a downward psychological spiral. Her mother (a shrill Barbara Hershey) is a domineering figure who gave up her own dance career when she fell pregnant, and Nina is following in the footsteps of another fading star, with Beth (Winona Ryder) on her way out of the company (it's a sad piece of casting, and Ryder's performance is an embarrassment). Nina's chief antagonist, however, is Lily (Mila Kunis), a sultry young dancer for whom the sexiness and sense of danger that Nina is striving for comes as easily as drawing breath.
Is Lily after Nina's role, or is it all in the tormented ballerina's head? As Nina begins to crack under the pressure, Aronofsky attempts to express her psychosis in a variety of ways, but he possesses a dispiritingly limited box of tricks. She starts falling apart physically, her flawless skin developing mysterious cuts and lesions, and her fingernails are subjected to some horrific abuse. She starts catching glimpses of a doppelganger in the streets, and the director takes every single opportunity to use mirrors as a lazy shorthand for his central character's dichotomy. It's all very silly, but Aronofsky's actors give it everything and their conviction is enough to keep the whole rickety enterprise on track. Portman, with every muscle tensed and every nerve on edge, finds a note of quivering anxiety within her character and plays it brilliantly, matching her character stride for stride as Nina's paranoia goes into overdrive and her 'Black Swan' begins to emerge. The work offered by Mila Kunis is also crucial to the picture. With just a smartly pitched line reading or a wicked smile, she often manages to breath a sense of life into a film that frequently threatens to grow overbearing.
There's little anyone can do to prevent Black Swan careering towards disaster in its lezzed-up, face-stabbing, feather-sprouting second half though. I found myself laughing at events onscreen more often than not as the picture rapidly imploded, its early intensity and dramatic pull completely dissipating in a sea of hysterical nonsense. Aronofsky wants to make something sexy, fucked-up and operatic, but he's too literal-minded a director with too limited a range to pull it off without losing his way. Black Swan does have some vivid moments (nothing but credit to DP Matthew Libatique), but when looked at in any kind of objective light, it is a very stupid film.
Is it an entertaining one, though? The answer to that question is undeniably yes. I don't think this is anything like a cohesive piece of filmmaking, and it displays as many of Aronofsky's flaws as his virtues, but I did have fun watching it. Black Swan has a reckless momentum and its sheer nuttiness ensures it holds the viewer rapt, just to see how Nina's psychological trauma will manifest itself next. The film's climax is an absolute mess and the last of its many laugh-out-loud moments, but I grudgingly admired the movie's commitment to its melodramatic story and its refusal to take the foot off the accelerator at any point. Black Swan might ultimately make a spectacle of itself, but at least it is a distinctive spectacle, and it remains weirdly fascinating even as it finally topples off the stage.