By Owen Gleiberman
Updated January 16, 2011 at 06:28 PM EST
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Image Credit: Niko TaverniseA true love-it-or-hate-it movie only comes along every once in a while (Moulin Rouge was one; so was The Blair Witch Project), and by that standard Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s lurid and voluptuous agony-of-dance horror film, doesn’t qualify. It’s not a movie that anyone I’ve talked to genuinely dislikes. And why would they? Aronofsky, a sizzling craftsman, keeps the thrills and the hallucinations, the mirrored twists, the whole sexy-masochistic high-maintenance kinkiness of the ballet world — or, at least, this tony pulp version of it — at full boil. He keeps the movie pulsing and the audience watching. Yet if Black Swan doesn’t qualify as a love-it-or-hate it movie, I still think it’s a drama that divides people into two wildly divergent camps. There are those who swoon for it…and those who don’t. Those who experience this sensationalistic riff on the perils of artistic performance as, itself, a work of art — and those who, like me, enjoy the movie with a certain basic qualification, who consume it as primitive, almost trashy fun (these are the viewers you hear in megaplexes giggling at some of the dialogue) but who never really take the leap of connecting to it as a daredevil feat of imagination.

What fascinates me is that while the two camps may not be light-years apart in terms of enthusiasm (maybe only miles), it still seems as if we saw two different movies. In a funny way, I think that the difference echoes a similar breakdown in the reaction to Inception last summer. For Black Swan, like Inception, is an ambitious, structurally elaborate thriller that pretends to be psychological but, at its core, is really a post-psychological experience, a movie that takes interior states and externalizes them. These are films that turn dreaming into a form of action. Depending on who you are, you either find that a catharsis or, on some level, a copout.

But what do I mean when I say that Black Swan — a movie about art, pain, sex, beauty, an overbearing stage mother out of Tennesse Williams, and the quest for perfection — isn’t a psychological experience? Just look at the way the movie works:

It pretends, for a while, to be a thriller of erotic repression. What, exactly, is Nina’s problem? As Natalie Portman plays her (with a tremulous face of woe that’s half Garbo-as-waif, half Picasso tormented-mistress portrait), Nina is gorgeous in a shrinking-violet way, and she’s an exceptional and professionally successful dancer. Yet she has no life: She lives, with her doting/domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), in a cozy old cracked-paint Upper West Side apartment that’s like a shrine to the past, and she’s still, at heart, a little girl who has cut herself off from adult sexual pleasure. That neurosis, according to the movie, emerges out of the central myth of ballet, an idealized erotic image of femininity — all white tutus and stretching, stylized limbs — that still retains its princess “purity.” It’s sex turned into the poetry of abstraction.

Except that part of what had me rolling my eyes a bit at Black Swan from almost the beginning is the film’s tinny, retrograde notion of sexual repression and conflict. The relationship between Nina and that melty-faced gargoyle of a mom (have a little cake frosting, my pretty!) is like something out of a Sandy Dennis movie from the mid-’60s, and when Vincent Cassel, as the Balanchine-lite choreographer-seducer-manipulator, tells Nina to “go home and touch yourself — live a little,” that’s one line in the script that really needed another pass. I mean, is that reallythe guy’s idea of “living a little?” I think what he meant is: You need to get out more. Then again, I never quite got how Nina biting him on the lip in his office revealed her “inner Black Swan” in the first place. Isn’t that what a prude would do? Nina is presented as a character who’s ripe for liberation, but the fact that she’s too scared to truly go for it reduces the film’s erotic psychology to old-movie hothouse hokum. (Winona Ryder’s role as a tossed-away aging ballerina only compounds the corniness. From the moment she stalks out of that party — totally unbelievable! — she’s like a harpie out of an old bedlam potboiler.)

It pretends to be a movie about artistic creation. What, exactly, does Nina want to accomplish in the world of ballet? From the outset, we know that she’s hellbent on achievement: to be plucked out of the crowd, like Cinderella, and given a plum part, a lead role. In performance terms, she wants to be taken to the ball. Her whole problem, of course, is that, as Cassel says (over and over and over again), she’s a technically exquisite dancer who doesn’t seem lit by an inner fire. She dances the White Swan to perfection; the dark passion of the Black Swan requires her to tap into an unprecedented part of herself. But even when she attempts to do this, her goal remains the same: to achieve. To do what’s asked of her. To please the mercurial choreographer-dictator. To be perfect. (She’s a driven yuppie of classical dance.) To succeed, she must become the Black Swan. But I never once felt that Nina wanted to become the Black Swan — that is, that she wanted that transformation for herself, as an artist. So even in her journey over to the dark side, she remains, in essence, a little girl dutifully doing her homework. Even when it starts to be some very strange homework.

By the end, Black Swan turns out to be a what’s-real-and-what-isn’t-real? horror film. Please!! Do NOT read this paragraph if you don’t want essential points in the movie given away! Nina keeps staring back at images of herself, which is very trendy-psycho — and, as far as I can surmise, it means that she’s separating from herself, becoming two states of being: who she is and who she imagines she is. As the violent/sexy/skin-peeling/glass-shard-wielding fantasy Nina takes over, the movie wants to sweep you up into its fantasy, its black rapture, its dream-that’s-more-authentic-than-reality. And, obviously, for a portion of the audience, that’s just what happens. They go into a trance.

To me, though, the more that Nina goes over the edge, the more that Black Swan becomes a luridly literal-minded horror-movie head game that you sort of learn to play. With the rational Nina “gone,” there’s no one, really, left to identify with. There’s just Black Swan Nina, an image of a girl sprouting feathers as poison sugarplums dance brilliantly in her head. The sheer visual pageantry of this — the camera twirling on-stage and off, the image of Nina’s face, with its swan mask of evil — is undeniably hypnotic. That’s why I liked the movie! Yet there’s a reason the very end of it didn’t blow me away. If Nina, living (and dancing) a kind of breakdown, has transported herself to a place of artistic genius through the demonic flowering of her delusions, then why does she suddenly need to go further and actualize them? To make fantasy blood and violence and masochism real? (Or is it real? Was it all just a dream? Where’s a spinning top when you need one?)

Okay, I give up: Why don’t you tell me. Who swooned for Black Swan, and who didn’t? And among the swooners, did you feel that the movie was an authentic psychological experience? Or that it wasn’t, and that it didn’t need to be?

Black Swan

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  • Darren Aronofsky

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