When Darren Aronofsky observed Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, it was with a documentary-like degree of detachment, hanging out in changing rooms and trailer parks, and catching on the fly an ageing warrior's weary climb back to the middle; it was as fascinated by the context as it was by the man falling to pieces in the middle of it. When Aronofsky watches Natalie Portman as the ballerina at the centre of his latest Black Swan, his gaze is compulsive and creepy, as though the director had got stuck midway between the Michael Powell of The Red Shoes and the Powell of Peeping Tom. Perhaps unmoored is the better word. The Wrestler reached for its heightened states from a bedrock of authenticity, but Black Swan deals in a knowing inauthenticity that falls dangerously close to camp. Behind its plies and pirouettes resides a ropey old melodrama, and all Aronofsky is doing, in the film's wilder moments, is hanging a few whistles and bells alongside the mothballs.
Portman's Nina is but one young dancer competing for the role of the Swan Queen in her New York company's upcoming production of Swan Lake. She has the good-girl routine - the grace, the smooth, self-effacing movement and beauty - down pat; what she doesn't do, and what she struggles to convey in rehearsal once she's selected for the part by the company's artistic director (a self-parodying Vincent Cassel), is dark, seductive, spellbinding. Which is where newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) comes in. With Nina suddenly finding herself surrounded by bitchy, spitting rivals, Lily arrives as something else entirely: a shadow, an ally, a confidante; on these fledgling divas' nights out together, a wingperson; and, eventually, a lover, a nemesis, the antithesis of everything Nina has stood at the bar for.
If there's one thing Black Swan seems likely to provoke more than hormonal Internet buzz about what we may or may not see in the Portman-Kunis relationship, it'll be a thousand and one academic screeds about its representation of femininity. Various mouldy archetypes are shuttled on from the wings, from the Smothering Matriarch (Barbara Hershey), who threatens to toss an entire gateau into a bin when her daughter turns down the offer of one slice (mental) to the company's very own Old Maid, the resentful former principal dancer Beth, played by Winona Ryder. This latter is as knowing a bit of casting as Rourke was for The Wrestler, but crueller, too: without the prospect of getting even one of her finely honed heels back in the spotlight, Beth is composed of 75 percent streaming mascara, and is eventually punished for the sin of getting on beyond her years.
The film's acute sense of body horror will doubtless go over big with young female viewers. Nina's ascent through the ranks coincides with the outbreak of a nasty rash on her back, and the camera hews to the broken nails and bruised ankles that come as professional hazards in this particular field. At the centre of the film lurks Aronofsky's stated desire to shatter, or at least sully, Portman's mostly pristine rep for a kind of well-bred, sexless dullness. "I want you to go 'ome and touch yourself," Cassel instructs Nina, and - whoop-de-do - she does. Portman is convincing on the sacrifice and self-denial needed to steal a leap on her rivals, the damaged personality that causes her to pick and tear strips off herself; yet if she is to win the Oscar, I'd merely ask we consider how much she does for Black Swan, and how much of Black Swan is done to her - for the film's conception of madness surely lies in Aronofsky's gaze, and not the performers.
It doesn't help the latter group that they're obliged to work within an inherently preposterous framework. One of Black Swan's irritations is that, for a so-called major work, it permits a strikingly narrow range of responses. You either look past its silliness and forgive it anything (in which case it may rightly be labelled a post-preposterous work of cinema), or you get stuck on it, and see only the following: nonsense on straining tiptoes, Cruel Intentions in tutus, all dressed up for those tuxedo-clad committee members who like their trash to have the posture and bearing of High Art.
Here's Cassel on the Ryder character: "There was a force inside her - it's what made her so dangerous, so fascinating to watch". Aronofsky is as in thrall to the idea of the Bad Girl as certain women-in-prison movies, and indeed as certain chickflicks (and certain women) are to the notion of the Bad Boy. In the role, however, Kunis is limited to a handful of glowers and tart responses, and - most predicably - a tattoo covering most of her back. Yes, the actress enters enthusiastically into the pivotal girl-on-girl action, but isn't there something at least a little unseemly in a male director drooling over all this? (The press appear to have been too busy pursuing Aronofsky's allegedly faithless ex Rachel Weisz to raise this point; heaven forfend the couple's recent split should have anything to do with his day job.)
I'd hoped the film might have been carried by Aronofsky's usually exhilarating technique, which worked for me even during the generally reviled The Fountain - but no, up until the closing moments, Black Swan is prosaic to look at and listen to; it projects a dull sort of madness, reliant on gimcrack effects (subliminal flashes), cliche and secondhand thought; it's the kind of film that'll show you Portman staring into a looking glass a thousand times in the belief this will give us a new and dazzling insight into the mind of a troubled young woman. (And yes, those mirrors will be shattered eventually.) You can't see any of it much pleasing balletomanes, since its drive is towards fracture, crack-up, breakdown, rather than any unified or controlled beauty of performance.
It's Cassel, again the director's drooling mouthpiece, who gets to speak a defence of this tactic: "Perfection is not about control, but letting go - surprising yourself, so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence!" In other words: what Aronofsky learnt from loosening up on The Wrestler, working towards that final (and genuinely transcendent) leap into the unknown. For all Black Swan's myriad transgressions - and they're mild, 15-rated transgressions at that, the kind that might only be considered transgressions in Puritan America - I never once felt it starting to transcend its material; it didn't seem much more to me than a horror movie assembled with rather more craft than usual, which is why the standing ovation directed into its end credits felt more than mildly presumptious. Aronofsky may be the first filmmaker in history to have gone to the ballet for a slumming session, however elegant or prize-worthy some may yet deem it.
Black Swan opens in cinemas nationwide from tomorrow.