You won’t be having a lot of fun at “Black Swan,” but the less seriously you take this wildly melodramatic, unashamedly pulpy look at the blood sport that is New York City ballet, the better your chances are of enjoying yourself even a little.
This tale of feathered ambition starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as dueling ballerinas is not just any kind of trash, it’s high-art trash, a kind of “When Tutu Goes Psycho” that so prizes hysteria over sanity that it’s worth your life to tell when its characters are hallucinating and when they’re not.
In fact, the only problem with calling “Black Swan” sensationalistic and over the top is that it makes this shameless shotgun marriage of “The Red Shoes” and Roger Corman sound like more fun than it is.
The director here is the earnest Darren Aronofsky, and his trademark sledgehammer style makes any kind of enjoyment difficult. As he showed in “The Wrestler” and earlier, this is someone who believes in bludgeoning audiences into submission. When you experience ballet the Aronofsky way, you count yourself lucky that the dancers don’t have easy access to staple guns.
Not that ballerina Nina Sayers (Portman) would know what to do with a staple gun even if she had one. As presented in the screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz and John McLaughlin, Nina is supposed to be a Goody Two Shoes, a virginal drone who’s devoted her life to dance and labored for years in the corps de ballet without a peep of protest.
Nina is such a timid soul she doesn’t seem to mind living with her hovering, possessive, over-solicitous mother, Erica ( Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina herself who worries that her deserving daughter’s chances for stardom are dribbling away.
Not to worry, Mom. Thomas Leroy (French star Vincent Cassel), the ballet’s imperious artistic director (is there any other kind?), has his mind on change. With a big production of “Swan Lake” coming up, he deep-sixes aging prima ballerina Beth Macintyre ( Winona Ryder at her most psychotic) and tells Nina she just might be in line for the starring role and the chance to play the ballet’s white and black swans.
But wait, there’s a catch. Actually, two catches, the first being a flesh-and-blood rival named Lily (Kunis), a hot new dancer who shows up at rehearsal literally “straight off the plane” from where else but California.
Not for nothing does Lily hail from San Francisco and not Sheboygan. Geography is destiny here, and we are meant to understand that Lily is a sensual free spirit, someone who gleefully breaks any rule she can get her hands on. She even has a tattoo!
No sooner does Lily arrive than Nina starts to feel this newcomer is trying to upstage her. It doesn’t help matters that while Thomas has no problem envisioning Nina as the angelic white swan, he is not at all sure if she can connect with the white swan’s lustful, evil twin, the black swan of the film’s title.
A controlling, manipulative Svengali not unlike “The Red Shoes’” Boris Lermontov, Thomas is more than eager to help Nina connect to her dark side. He calls her frigid, dares her not to be a coward and all but screams “perfection is not just about control; it’s also about letting go.”
Letting go, as card-carrying Californian Lily surely knows, can be movie code for sex, and soon enough Nina, whose bedroom looks like it hasn’t changed since she was a toddler, is encouraged to become involved in the kind of soft-core antics that will remind those with long memories of Radley Metzger’s mostly forgotten “Therese and Isabelle” and “Camille 2000.”
The idea behind “Black Swan,” in as much as it has an idea beyond the presentation of sensation, is that the quest for perfection can unhinge the unwary. It’s a plausible notion, but the problem is that Aronofsky in his deterministic zeal can’t help but stack that deck.
What that means is that Nina is a walking nervous breakdown from the moment we see her. With her unexplained scratch marks and penchant for seeing strange people on the subway, there’s not a moment in the film in which she feels like anything other than a wreck.
This lack of subtlety in Nina’s predicament means that, all the grueling physical work the actresses put in to make the dancing convincing notwithstanding, there is nowhere of sustained interest for their characters to go. But expecting subtlety from a Darren Aronofsky film is like expecting Pixar to announce a slasher movie. Not in this lifetime.