I like my sleazy Men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Hell trash the way I used to like an
occasional hourly pint glass of equally cheap and nasty embalming sherry. Straight up, with a box of tissues and a bucket to hand.
One of the formative experiences of my reel life was a double bill of Basic Instinct and Showgirls -- a heart-warming tale of a sociopath ingénue working her way up (and down and twirling round) the greasy stripper pole of Vegas terpsichore. The only thing stopping me from buying the 70's Italian Eurosleaze disasterpiece Malabimba: The Malicious Whore - nunsploitation! yay! - is the lingering suspicion nothing could live down to a title like that. Tommy Lee Jones may rather pretend The Eyes of Laura Mars never happened, but I never will.
So let's assume my objection to Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's latest lump of arthouse torture porn, isn't entirely on grounds of good taste.
To the contrary, on the face of it Black Swan should be right up my back passage: Girl on girl action! More oozing Cronenberg-lite body horror than you can shake a server farm at (link contains mild spoilers)! Mommy issues! A dolly French stud who can say crap like this with a straight face: "I’ve got a little homework assignment for you: go home and touch yourself."
But therein lies the problem: I think I'm supposed to take all this dreadfully seriously, and I just can't. If you're comfortable, boys and girls, shall we begin?
Once upon time, there was a pretty but uptight dancer called Nina (Natalie Portman). She lived in a girly pink dungeon with her Wicked Stage Mother (Barbara Hershey), who is really fucking creepy. But not as creepy as Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the artistic director of the company she works at. As he tells her between bouts of workplace sexual harassment bordering on attempted rape, Nina's frigid perfectionism is perfect for the Swan Queen in his new production of Swan Lake. But does she have the "passion" and "abandon" to dance both the White Swan, and her dark doppelgänger and ultimate destroyer, the Black Swan? Perhaps another clammy grope will tell. Yup. Displaced older dancer Beth (Wynona Ryder) beg to differ - just before she throws herself in front of a cab as highly strung ballerinas gone the way of expired yoghurt are prone to do.
By the time Mila Kunis shows up as Nina's "sensual" and "uninhibited" fren-emy/understudy, Lily (tattoos, smokes and comes from San Francisco = evil slutbag bitch), Black Swan has done a grand jeté into incoherence. Gorgeous incoherence, but incoherence none the less.
All the technical departments bring their A-game, particularly cinematographer Matthew Libatique. His jittery camera skitters though a world of scumbled ash, inky shadow and retina-searing artificial light. The one serious error of judgement is Benjamin Millepied's competent but uninspired choreography -- we're told endlessly that Thomas LeGrope is one of the most respected choreographers on earth, and he's going to revitalise his troubled company by making a warhorse like Swan Lake "edgy". Too much telling, Darren, not enough showing but even here Libatique's elegant close-up steadycam keeps your eye involved.
Brian Emrich's aggressive sound design is also hellishly cheesy, but it also fits nicely with the parts of the film that actually work: A sleek nasty psycho bitch slasher-flick Aronofsky can't quite cop to making.
Because, in case you haven't noticed, Nina is also a self-harming wreck going down the drain of increasing vivid and murderous paranoid hallucinations. The final act of the film defies rational synopsis, but let's just say taking a roofie and getting in touch with your inner depraved bisexual the night before your big début is not going to end well. Hell no. (Hey, she's from San Francisco and you're psychotic. It doesn't count!)
The problem is that it's a distinction without a difference. As much as I'm indifferent to Portman's acting -- which veers between Manic Pixie Dream Girl and fashion editorial not performance -- it's hard to hate on someone whose sole function in the Star Wars prequels was to get knocked up by the Jedi Jailbait and pass the bad hair-do gene to Carrie Fisher. She's suffered enough.
But Portman has the thankless, and impossible, task of playing the same loaded deck Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall were handed in The Shining -- how the hell do do you go mad when you're already there? Stanley Kubrick didn't care - he notoriously tortured Duvall and Nicholson into states of perpetual hysteria for months on end and it showed. That's all he was interested in putting on screen, and it's unfair to criticise two fine actors for doing what they were told. I just didn't care in the end.
And I don't believe in - or care about - Portman's Nina Sayers either: She's trying to dance in cement shoes and it matters when she's in every frame. In an earlier draft of this review, I complained that Portman perpetually looked like she was being punched in the face between takes. The technical dance aspects are handled well, but it's not entirely cynical to wonder if she's really going to get an expected best actress Oscar for merely surviving to collect it. If the director and his two co-writers can't be arsed placing Nina's scarifying descent from psychosis to homicidal mania in a context I can engage with - or Portman can tease into a performance - I'm not going to do it for them.
I remain unconvinced Aronofsky gives a damn about ballet or has any real insight into why anyone would obsessively work over a dance combination -- or a paragraph or a line reading -- to the point of exhaustion and beyond. Instead it's just a hook to hear Portman's bones crack like a stand of eucalyptus trees exploding in a fire-storm, as his fear of and contempt for the human body - and female sexuality - erupts like ever more baroque tumours. Individually, they're startling but they don't linger. And, in the end, they no more make an engaging whole than a collection of flashy steps makes a dance.
I took dance classes as a desperately ungainly youth, and while I never thought it was ever a career option I do remember the sheer joy of performance. Anyone who has the time and energy to read Jennifer Homans' weighty but fascinating Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet will discover that, yes, ballet is now and always has been, full of pushy stage mothers, drama queens of all genders and impresarios who used sex as a very offensive weapon indeed but it also brings to life "why 'the steps' were never just the steps: they were a set of beliefs and a way of life."
Ironically enough, Moira Shearer - who was a professional dancer not an actress - gives a better performance than Portman in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's delirious melodrama The Red Shoes (1948), which was one of the highlights of last year's film festival. Like Nina, Vicky Page literally dies for her art. But unlike Aronofky, Powell and Pressburger give their lushly over-produced, stratospherically high camp tragedy of the conflict between art and life a heart and mind. I could believe that Vicky Page would sacrifice her marriage for the claustrophobic world of the Ballet Lermontov and Anton Walbrook's equally obsessive impresario. Boris Lermentov doesn't need to need his hands between anyone's legs or talk dirty; his seduction begins in a much more dangerous place.
Black Swan is a pliéing turkey that tries - and ultimately fails - to have it both ways - it lacks the courage of its unpleasantness to be Showgirls en pointe, but can't take ballet seriously enough to meet The Red Shoes on its own turf.
ETA: Apologies for the badly FUBAR draft that was initially posted, due to human incompetence. Muse's proof-reader and subeditor have been taken out for a sound thrashing. I promise not to enjoy it too much.