Not long into Black Swan Thomas Leroy, the director of a prestigious ballet company, tells us that his new performance of Swan Lake will be stripped down to the bare essentials. Creatively, the decision seems sound when you remember there’s no production as stereotypically indicative of ballet as Swan Lake; moreover, when you consider that Aronofsky’s film only has 100 minutes to give us his story. It’s an especially slight story – Nina is the prototypical driven ballerina, a girl determined to sacrifice all she can for her art, goaded to perfection by her sinister mother who is (in typical fashion) a failed ballerina (an archetype in itself). True to form, Nina’s precise over-consciousness is firmly paralleled by a lighter and more spontaneous dancer in the company whilst the director, every bit as suave and oily as you’d imagine seems to be courting every girl in the company.
I was worried about seeing Black Swan from the onset because reading the script an injudiciously long time before the release I was surprised by Aronofsky’s literalness. It’s not that the script for the film is the “problem”, but the blatant lack of subtlety is vaguely puzzling at times, it’s a true-to-form realisation of the concept of stripping it down to the bare essentials which makes you realise why any piece of art must have more than the “bare essentials” to soar. Yet, whereas the overly precise exactness doesn’t succeed as winningly in the script, it impresses more in the technical aspects. Aronofsky is an especially visual director, and film is – at its height – a visual medium, and his overemphasis on the contrast of light and dark works impressively, even when it’s too obviously emphasised – which is always.
Not that she isn’t fine in the role – the strongest compliment I can pay her (with a clear conscience) is that she does everything the script asks her to. She doesn’t bring anything especially individualistic to the role, and that’s not a problem in itself– but I’m moved to think that Portman’s own “good” performance only seems excellent because Aronfsky refuses to let her sell the role on her own. Perhaps, it’s a continuance of his continuing attention to the unsubtle. It’s not that cinema doesn’t call for ameliorations from music, and lighting to emphasise character but I get that feeling that the visual frenzy we’re thrust into intensifies what’s there so it emerges as more forceful than it really is. It’s as I noted in my write-up on Portman, she thrives in the quiet moments, which of course makes Nina’s problems with finding the “black swan” within more difficult. And once again, it’s possible to read the any fickleness in characterisation as an extension of the character and not a fault of Portman. When she shines brightest, though, it’s especially luminous – like a bathroom call from her mother which is a perfect portion of the film that’s incredibly personal and not at all pretentious perfectly encapsulating Nina’s isolation and loneliness. The sort of scene that makes that final confrontation between Hershey and Portman at the film close all to obvious – even if I’ll single out Hershey as the film’s best-in-show despite of (and not because of) the film’s visual intensity where she’s concerned.
What I fond oddest, though, is that despite its overt tendencies and dedication Black Swan seems especially devoid of passion, which makes me return to my supposition that the film is a stand-in for Nina’s issues which makes me wonder in retrospect if the obvious disinterest the film has for Nina is indicative of Nina’s own slight self-loathing for herself. There’s something inspired in framing the beautiful wide-shots of dancing against the ugly images of broken toes and bruised skin – but it’s just too easy to serve it to us an excuse for perfection because in all her deluded intensity I never get the feeling of overwhelming passion that Nina should feel about the task at hand - her dancing; ironically Hershey’s stoic mother seems to suggest more passion for the dance than Nina which gives her plight a feeling of forced dedication but lacking any true impetus. And, it’s sort of how Black Swan ultimately emerges austere and mannered, and graceful and svelte even when it’s interested in the basest of emotions and the ugliest portions of dance. But, when my adrenaline races it’s not for an honest interest in the story, but evidence of Aronofsky’s obvious skill for visual manipulation – which is admirable, but not exactly emotionally moving.