So I’m watching Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, and about two-thirds of the way through, I’m trying to decide which is sillier, ballet or this movie about it. The story of a rising young star who takes over the coveted central role in a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Black Swan is a berserk mix of the classic The Red Shoes, the legendary backstage catfight All About Eve, and the surreal Italian horror film Suspiria, with a bit of Showgirls tossed in just in case none of this is nuts enough. Virginal and repressed with tendencies toward self-disfigurement, still living at home with the overbearing mother who’s sacrificed her own career, Nina is the most technically accomplished ballerina of her troupe but must find a deeply banked inner fire to play the White Swan’s seductive black double. In front of her is the past-her-prime diva whom she’s replacing, behind her the understudy scheming to replace her; and as she’s bullied by the troupe’s director to “lose” herself in the dance, to both maintain and take flight from the precision of every move and step, Nina finds herself pirouetting at the crux of madness, unraveling in the process, and maybe transforming into something that isn’t human.
Black Swan is full of clunky dialogue, fraught melodrama, and predictable plotting, even as little of it is persuasive narratively or psychologically. But here’s the thing: Somewhere in the last half hour of watching it, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get this movie out of my head. Aronofsky is one of the most polarizing of 21st-century directors, his audiences divided between the devoted and the dismayed. His first film in 1998, a cyberbiblical psycho-apocalyptic black-and-white rave of a thriller called π, set the tone of what’s come since; flawed (The Wrestler), failures (The Fountain), successes that you never can bring yourself to watch again (Requiem for a Dream), his movies are audacious verging on preposterous and relentless verging on bombastic. I can’t remember anyone in any of them ever cracking a joke. But caveats and equivocations aside, he’s a filmmaker for those who admire movies that are a bungee jump at the end of a cord no one’s measured. You could hate everything he’s done and still admire the hell out of him, or be hard-pressed to deny that movies in general would be poorer without him.
Black Swan is the most prominent candidate in a long time for American film’s most clandestine canon, the Cinema of Hysteria. These are movies that work on a level beyond rationality, in the realm of obsessive reverie, making no sense literally or logically and yet we understand them completely. They go back at least as far as 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein, a horror picture by designation but in fact far more peculiar, up through the doomed romance A Place in the Sun, the id-racked western Johnny Guitar, and the frenzied Written on the Wind in the postnuclear late ’40s and ’50s. More or less skipping the ’60s and ’70s when strangeness was usurped by psychedelia, the Cinema of Hysteria reasserted itself during the ’80s and ’90s in the masochistic epiphanies of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Kubrick’s nocturnal plunge into the libido in Eyes Wide Shut, and the perverse fantasias of David Lynch. If there were a Lifetime Achievement Award for the Cinema of Hysteria, the first would have gone to King Vidor, a director whose career and art peaked at the height of the silent era. For nearly two decades after sound’s boisterous intrusion, Vidor found his bearings only fitfully until the late ’40s, when he made a string of movies—Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead, and Beyond the Forest—that simply were off their respective rockers. In the same way that these films were deranged by the grand and operatic impulses of Vidor’s silent masterpieces 20 years earlier, Aronofsky’s work still feels informed by the millennialism that produced him more than a decade ago, or maybe 990 years early. He’s a man out of time, his pictures bulletins of a calendar beyond our ironic age, the products of a tension between this moment and no moment we’ve yet known.
As the world’s foremost expert on the Cinema of Hysteria, given that I made it up, I can assure you that Black Swan possesses every trait of the subspecies. First, sex is the electric current that not only drives these movies dramatically and gives them their dreamy power but untethers them from the more practical obligations of storytelling. Second, at the same time that these films are imagistic to the point of being hallucinatory, they’re distinguished from the superficially trippy by riveting central performances that are naked to the point of reckless: Gene Tierney in the neon-noir Leave Her to Heaven, Natalie Wood in the fevered Splendor in the Grass, Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Without Kim Novak’s bruised carnal melancholy and James Stewart’s turning his everyman persona inside out, 1958’s Tristan and Isolde-on-acid Vertigo isn’t one of the greatest movies ever made, whatever vision and mastery Alfred Hitchcock brought to it; that Hitchcock regretted both casting decisions is indicative of how, for once, he didn’t understand his own movie, another thing often true of the Cinema of Hysteria. At the center of Matthew Libatique’s delirious camerawork in Black Swan is Natalie Portman giving as uncompromising and fearless a portrayal by an actress as any since Tang Wei three years ago in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. If silly is too philistine a word to use about ballet, then at least it can fairly be called unnatural, not art as an organic expression of life and its usual aspirations but rather a self-contorting attempt to transcend the earthbound, escaping the limits of the body by punishing, even crippling it. Refined, controlled, and at the edge of unhinged, doing most of her own dancing and connecting ballet’s mutilations to Nina’s own, Portman commands the metamorphosis from repression to abandon.
Years ago I realized that whenever I see Vertigo with an audience, the film never casts the same spell as when I watch it by myself. This may be the truest thing about the Cinema of Hysteria, utterly the stuff of dreams and therefore utterly private, which is at odds with not only the communal way in which movies have been watched and responded to for most of their history but with verdicts of good and bad altogether. In its final 15 or 20 minutes, though you know exactly what’s going to happen, Black Swan operates enough on its own terms to raise questions about whether movies or ballet or art ever really lend themselves to objective assessments; but then we probably don’t need to go into that, not if there are going to be film critics, which is to say not if I still want to have this job. Lose yourself in the dance if you want to achieve perfection, Portman’s ballerina is told; this movie takes its own advice and counts on the audience to take it as well. Aronofsky’s movie doesn’t achieve perfection or anything close to it, certainly not the perfection of something accomplished perfectly. But against the will or better judgment, it defiantly imposes itself on the individual consciousness. Just as Portman’s dancer looks in mirrors and knows that on the other side is something more real than what’s reflected, we look at this movie and sense another lurking behind it, a movie that’s for each of us alone and no one else.