'Black Swan' Is Just Like 'The Wrestler'

A masochistic wrestler and a tormented ballerina: see the similarity?

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"They both have these performers who use their bodies in extremely physical ways," reckoned director Darren Aronofsky when comparing wrestlers and dancers. And he should be able to grasp this distinction: his last two films have featured punishing performances by one of each. In The Wrestler, his most commercially minded film, the director resurrected the career of Mickey Rourke, who turned in a brutally heartfelt, masochistic take as an over-the-hill WWF-style fighter clinging on to his one last shot in the ring.

For an encore, Aronofsky teamed up with Natalie Portman to release a title with arguably the most pre-release Oscar buzz this year (yes, even more than The Social Network). Black Swan, a lurid psychological thriller set in the in world of professional ballet, sees the actress best known for her work with Mike Nichols (Closer), Zach Braff (Garden State) and George Lucas (Star Wars), heading for—to say the least—darker and more demanding territory.

Here's how critics are reacting to the uncanny similarities in the two Aronofsky films:

  • 'They Both Punish Themselves For Their Art' figures Time's Richard Corliss about Mickey Rourke's "clichéd" over-the-hill wrestler and Portman's tormented ballerina. "As Aronofsky imposed a strict regimen on Mickey Rourke for his role as Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, so did he prod Portman into six months' exercise and ballet training." The strict regimen appears to have paid off in accolades for Portman, though Corliss won't go as far as crowning her "Best Actress" just yet: "Journalists know that sticking the magic word Oscar in a headline is a cheap, effective way of getting attention for a film they like, and for themselves." (Note: Corliss's article has "Oscar" in the headline.)
  • It's the Female Counterpart to 'The Wrestler' New York's David Edelstein writes: "In The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky crafted to male masochism, to the notion that one is truly, ecstatically alive on the brink of self-obliteration. And now, for the perfect insanity-inducing double bill, comes that film’s female counterpart, Black Swan." At Aronofsky's worst he alternates between "hypnotic" and "stupefying." In Swan, Aronofsky manages to get "past the blood-brain barrier [to] give you a drug experience." Translation: This is "a work that fully lives up to its director’s ambitions."
  • Sure, It Resembles 'The Wrestler,' But It's More Like 'Pi' At the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert notes the similiarity between Aronofsky's latest films, but reaches a little further back into the directors filmography for a more apt comparison: "Black Swan will remind some viewers of Aronofsky's previous film, The Wrestler. Both show singleminded professionalism in the pursuit of a career, leading to the destruction of personal lives. I was reminded also of Aronofsky's brilliant debut with Pi (1998), about a man driven mad by his quest for the universal mathematical language." The theme that runs throughout all the directors movies is this: "Aronofsky's characters make no little plans."
  • No Less Brutal Than 'The Wrestler'  While noting that the director "never immerses us as deeply inside Portman's head" as he did with Rourke, Variety's Peter Debrudge otherwise found Black Swan to have mostly positive resemblances to the award-winning wrestler film. It trades "the grungy world of a broken-down fighter for the more upscale but no less brutal sphere of professional ballet. Centerstage stands Natalie Portman, whose courageous turn lays bare the myriad insecurities genuinely dedicated performers face when testing their limits, revealing shades of the actress never before seen on film."
  • It Just Trades In a Different Set of Clichés  In a mostly laudatory review in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis nevertheless skewers both films: "For his previous movie, The Wrestler, he proved his commercial smarts by taking Mickey Rourke out of deep freeze and dusting off a comeback story that was old when Wallace Beery wiped Jackie Cooper’s runny nose with the script for The Champ." Black Swan also has a "rather sluttish predilection for clichés, which include the requisitely demanding impresario...and Nina’s ballerina rival, Lily....But, oh, what Mr. Aronofsky does with those clichés, which he embraces, exploits and, by a squeak, finally transcends."
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