There’ve been snatches of humour in his films that have come before, but there’s an argument that Black Swan might just be director Darren Aronofsky’s first comedy. It’s a black one, sure, and it’s psychodrama too, a very glossy case study of artistic obsession. But at times the director’s The Wrestler follow-up is so silly and so camp, it’s unlikely a master of his craft like Aronofsky could have been unintentional with its tone.
If The Wrestler dealt with art at the base of the spectrum, then Black Swan concerns itself with subject matter at the most opposite end, telling the tale of a neurotic young ballerina (perfectly realized by Natalie Portman) whose life unravels before us. In many ways the two films are companion pieces; both concern the route one journies, and subsequent pitfalls, of people whose purpose is indistinguishable from their existence. Yet while Black Swan doesn’t pack the emotional punch of the pro-wrestling opus, the film never suffers for it.
Sure, there’s a substantial slab of Lynchian body horror as the protagonists life descends into madness – the Tchaikovsky soundtracked coda of the film is at once beautiful, pioneering, and thrillingly disgusting – and there are themes present that are distressing at source. But it’s the high octane performances of Vincent Cassel as the theatre company svengali and Winona Ryder as the worn down star of yesteryear that stops the film descending into documentary. There are moments where Nina (Portman) endures horror so gnarly, sympathy turns to curiosity, then realizes itself as something approaching mirth.
Come the end, there’s no gut wrench. No lesson learned. No emotional tipping point. Just the snapping of sense as a wasted life lies broken on a crash mat – it’s fine, you can laugh, nobody will judge you. There will be readings to come of Black Swan that will be worthy and reverential, and its cinematography and soundtrack deserve such acclaim. But while there are few films that with look and sound as good as this as 2011 plays out, there’ll will be even less that will be so misunderstood. Black Swan is a hoot. A silly, melodramatic hoot.