(Warning: I don’t really reveal any plot points but I kinda blow the contours of some of the big scenes here, so SPOILER ALERT in that sense.)
The outpouring of acclaim for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan just goes to show you: Movie nerds love pale brunettes with eating disorders. (I oughta know!) I really don’t know how to explain the plaudits otherwise.
Sure, there are tiny fragments of a great, or at least a scary, horror movie sprinkled throughout this story of a newly minted prima ballerina who’s cracking under the pressure. The Exorcist/Shining/Jacob’s Ladder/Lost Highway blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpses of wrong things (the drawing that blinked, the first of Nina’s doubles) and jump-scare things-that-should-not-be (“sweet girl,” and (of all things) Nina turning in mid-frig to see Barbara Hershey’s mommie dearest asleep in the chair) had me shivering in my seat. And the film’s undergirded by three entertaining performances, too. Mila Kunis nails the smiling smoker’s sexuality of an artsy version of the sort of girl my wife used to call a “College Jen.” Vincent Cassell is an absolute pleasure to watch every time he’s on screen, taking the French choreographer cliché and clichéing the hell out of it, yet always keeping him on the lighter side of the dividing line between hot-blooded genius and sexual predator so you never feel all that bad for rooting for him to do something sacré bleu! whenever he shows up. And I guess Natalie Portman deserves her Oscar for her “Raging Bull, but with bulimia instead of the Pasta Tour of Italy” physicality. I mean, I don’t think I’m ever going to think of Nina Whatsername again, but it was a demanding role and she really sold the idea that her ruthlessly honed physical condition bespoke fragility rather than strength. Moreover, her body language following her transformation at the end of the film was totally different and riveting; you could easily have convinced me they CGI’d her face on someone else’s body, like the Winkelvi.
But I think I just rattled off everything the movie has to recommend it. Most of the horror, the body horror in particular, is just sort of a yawn — anyone who’s watched a single David Cronenberg film (even the Viggo Mortensen crime ones!) has seen better/worse, and even the nastiest/cringiest material here, like the peeling scene in the party restroom, struck me by how not skeeved out I was by it. And almost all of the grand-finale scares (“sweet girl” excluded) weren’t just not scary, but laugh-out-loud ridiculous: Winona Ryder in the hospital room, the drawings and paintings, the transformation in the bedroom, the fight in the dressing room. Was Aronofsky going for camp? That’s what it felt like, which is sure to do a number on the effectiveness of any movie that’s trying to show someone scared out of their wits.
I found myself chuckling at the film’s dramatic moments on a far too regular basis as well. Right from the jump, with the wooden mean-girl gossip and giggling of the ballerinas, the film established that any point it could make, it would make with a sledgehammer’s subtlety. Tomas explaining that the Swan Queen would have to have both a dark and a light side as a mirror’s edge doubles him; infantilized Nina reporting the news of her success to her mother with “He picked me, Mommy!” rather than “I got the part,” which is what pretty much every human being I’ve ever known in the performing arts would say and I assure you I’ve known some damage cases; anything involving Winona Ryder; and my favorite, Nina’s failure to connect with the Black Swan aspect of her role depicted in shockingly, hilariously straightforward fashion as the result of the female equivalent of blueballs. The film’s egregious overscoring and overcaffeinated camerawork further undercut both the scares and the soul, browbeating you when they should be letting your brain do the work.
It’s a shame, it really is, and I’m disappointed. Usually the scary movies that get a lot of critical traction turn out to be pretty damn good, from The Silence of the Lambs to Mullholland Dr. (with which this film has quite a bit in common, obviously) to even There Will Be Blood (ditto), but this just didn’t work for me as either a horror film or a drama. On the other hand, the girl from That ’70s Show goes down on Queen Padme Amidala. For Your Consideration!