Sex’s Degrading Release

Darren Aronofsky is not gifted with a light touch. With “Black Swan,” which tells the story of a ballerina going insane, he’s found an outlet for all his worst impulses –– over-the-top combinations of bombastic music, shakycam, and quick editing.

At its best, Aronofsky’s direction captures the energy and excitement of dance. He might make a compelling musical someday.

He shoots most of the film with a handheld camera, even during largely static scenes in which most directors would place it on a tripod. As in his previous film, “The Wrestler,” he draws on the Dardenne brothers’ style, often following characters from behind in close-up.

Darren Aronofsky belches out a sorry story about a ballet dancer’s growth

Nina (Natalie Portman) gets the role of the Swan Queen in a performance of “Swan Lake,” even though her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), has doubts about her maturity and ability to pull off the dual nature of the character. He encourages her to experiment sexually as preparation for the role, but Nina, who lives with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), remains girlish well into her 20s, her bedroom filled with stuffed animals and decorated in shades of white and pink.

Her understudy and rival, Lily (Mila Kunis), is far worldlier, offering Nina cigarettes and Ecstasy. As the debut of “Swan Lake” comes closer, Nina begins having hallucinations, most of them gory.

It remains a mystery how a director as talented as Aronofsky has so much trouble making a satisfying film. “The Wrestler” succeeded because Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei were able to bring their own experience of aging to their parts; the narrative paralleled Rourke’s own decline and search for a comeback. There’s a real pathos etched into the lines of Rourke’s face.

By contrast, Portman is far more removed from her role, and “Black Swan” is mostly grounded in fantasy and other films. While it’s not as irritating as “Requiem for a Dream,” a film so ludicrously excessive that I’ve never been able to watch it all the way through, “Black Swan” comes close.

The film has all the soul of a Skinemax exercise, but it takes itself far more seriously. Even as it points out Thomas’ sleaziness, it seems to share the same sensibility. For Nina, maturity is seen exclusively in sexual terms; it is sexual repression that is holding her back as an artist. But when she obeys Thomas’ orders and masturbates, her pleasure is interrupted by visions of self-mutilation and of her disapproving mother.

After a drug-fueled night on the town, Lily and Nina wind up sleeping together, but “Black Swan” can’t bring itself to really take Nina’s desires seriously. It turns out that the lesbian sex was all a roofie-induced hallucination, though Nina is so far gone by this point that she doesn’t need drugs to see imaginary visions.

The film throws out the possibility that she is a lesbian, only to leave it hanging, like the none-too-subtle suggestion that Lily symbolizes the aspects of her personality that she’s repressed. (While Nina dresses in white, Lily’s usually clad in black.) The sex scene seems like a bone thrown to the heterosexual men in the audience at best and a pit stop on Nina’s decline at worst. Softcore porn may express exploitative straight male fantasies about female sexuality, but at least it portrays women having sexual pleasure without punishing them or implying that their same-sex experiences were all a fantasy.

It would be easy to list the films “Black Swan” evokes, from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes” to Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls,” by way of Joseph L. Mankiwiecz’s “All About Eve” and Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.” Unfortunately, Aronofsky has no gift for eroticism or camp. He seems to see sex as a necessary but degrading part of human experience.

The film doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. Nina sheds enough blood to satisfy torture-porn fans, but there’s very little actual violence in “Black Swan” — almost all the carnage turns out to exist only in Nina’s imagination. I can only imagine what Verhoeven could have done with the “Black Swan” screenplay. Even “The Red Shoe Diaries” schlockmeister Zalman King would probably have achieved a better result.

“Black Swan” is a ridiculous film with no self-awareness of its flaws. It’s probably bound to become a camp classic, but it’s not very enjoyable to watch.

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Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Fox Searchlight

Opens Dec. 3 citywide