It never ceases to amaze me what passes for Oscar-material these days. Admittedly, I gave up hope that an Oscar meant anything of significance when Julia Roberts won for Erin Brockovich; it was a great Julia Roberts performance, yes, but the performance of a great actress? Not so much. Roberts is one of those actors who is immensely compelling to watch, not because she transcends herself and becomes a character, but because Julia Roberts—the movie star—is intensely compelling on screen. She is charismatic, but rarely a character, and this is something that afflicts many movie stars, when an actor’s celebrity becomes so big, they can no longer convince an audience they are anything but their celebrity persona.
But I digress.
Black Swan deserves Oscar buzz because it is the work of Darren Aronofsky, who manages to push past the prettiness and delicacy of ballet to expose the psychotic inner-life of a ballerina. He succeeds here in turning highbrow into high drama, making the erudite echelons of dance culture accessible to folks who either don’t like, or know anything about, the world of toe shoes and classical music. But style cannot replace substance, and ultimately, Aronofsky’s indelible cinematic style is the only thing Black Swan has going for it—that, and a lubricious sex scene between Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman.
Depth, the film sorely lacks, but sex it has in spades. And it’s a predatory, violent sex, which doesn’t seem to stop Portman from enjoying it. But even the sex is a hard sell: Portman seems to climax at first touch, so between the lesbian lust-fest and a masturbatory scene in which she tries to please her director by pleasing herself, I began to wonder what pills she was taking. The most erotic scene in the film actually takes place when Portman and her director, Thomas, played by Vincent Cassel, dance together: “Now I’ve seduced you,” he reprimands. “It should be the other way around.” Which is exactly how the audience feels; they want and wait to be seduced, but unlike with Portman, the climax never comes.
Black Swan ultimately fails because it descends into high melodrama without a single sympathetic character. Portman’s Nina becomes so one-dimensionally deranged it becomes impossible to feel for her, and for this we can only blame the script. The same goes for Winona Ryder’s character, Beth, who is there to warn of every ballerina’s inevitable decline but without any insight into her personal struggle. She is like a stick figure or scarecrow, portending some horrible evil without being frightening. Nina’s mother, played by Barbara Hershey is another shallow figure, her balletic past alluded to but never explained, yet we’re to believe it was powerful enough to transform her, afflicting her with nightmare stage-mom syndrome as she tries to fulfill her own broken dreams through her daughter.
In the end, which is foreshadowed in the beginning—and in the trailer, and in the title—I cared less about Nina’s fate than the the fact that in meeting it, she sullied her feathery white swan costume.
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