Audiences either love or hate Darren Aronofsky’s new film Black Swan, an intriguing but flawed blend of The Red Shoes and Repulsion. It has been characterized as everything from a modern classic to an exploitative wanna-be slasher pic. There’s a good reason people are so split: Aronofsky’s uneven and down-right terrible direction.
Aronofsky fails so completely that it is no wonder opinion is split. The story isn’t as insightful or deep as he may want to pretend so something extraordinary was needed from him. But his direction is as schizophrenically fractured as the movie’s lead character, troubled ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). The movie is meant to be a creepy, disturbing journey into madness and more often than not, it’s successful, but no thanks to Aronofsky’s perverse and juvenile sensibilities. When we get into Nina’s mind and we are as confused about what is real and what isn’t as she is, when we get caught up in Nina’s psychological tension, the movie works. Like when Nina struggles with picking at sores on her fingers (or does she?) or when she thinks she sees something in the bathtub. But Aronofsky undermines those moments of psychological instability when he goes for one cheap thrill after another. We can’t help but roll our eyes at so many hackish horror/thriller gimmicks used. Every time Nina turns around to be shocked by someone standing behind her (or are they?), and Aronofsky blares discordant music at us, we might jump, but it isn’t earned.
There is a lot that is successful in the movie that I wonder why Aronofsky decided to load it with so much nonsense. What I liked in the movie seems to have worked in spite of his instincts. If he had restrained those instincts and focused on making an atmospheric descent into an artist’s nervous breakdown (or whatever was happening to her), rather than trying to transform Nina’s insanity into an actual thriller, this could have well been in the running for the best picture of the year. All the elements are there, but Aronofsky bungled too many of them. I suppose I should be grateful that he didn’t go the route of Abel Ferrara’s heroine in the mostly fun but trashy Ms. 45, another tale of a woman losing her grip, with a climatic Carrie-esque party massacre. Still Aronofsky does neither the character nor her portrayer Natalie Portman any favors with his unsuitable sensibilities.
It’s as though Aronofsky remembered that scene from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion where Catherine Deneuve’s character, dealing with her own kind of crazy, catches a glimpse of a man in her mirror. It made us all jump and it is that jolt that Aronofsky seems to be trying for – again and again, but Aronofsky doesn’t have the subtle hand that Polanski did in 1965.
After reading the preceding few paragraphs it may be difficult to believe that I mostly liked the movie. My admiration, though, has more to do with Natalie Portman’s incredible performance. This movie lives or dies by her success and she is phenomenal, upstaging everything she has done in the past and (mostly) overshadowing Aronofsky’s failures. Portman’s Nina Sayers is an ambitious, but reserved young dancer vying for the lead role in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She struggles to play both the White Swan Princess and her evil doppelganger, the Black Swan (Odette and Odile). The White Swan fits nicely with Nina’s naïve and meek personality so she nails her characterization, but the Black Swan is a challenge. Trying to play the part forces her to overcome her natural timidity and her need to be perfect: the Black Swan is bold and reckless. This struggle triggers a deeper conflict within herself between that which she has been repressing – her sexuality, her assertiveness – with that which dominates her personality – a crushing self-consciousness, an instinctive obsequiousness, and an almost obsessive-compulsive need for order. Under normal circumstances she may have tempered this internal battle, but she has never faced the pressure of dancing the lead nor has she experienced the social and emotional challenges of another hungry (younger) dancer (Mila Kunis) who may or may not be gunning for her role.
We believe every stage of Portman’s transformation. In the opening scenes she is quiet, non-assertive, always looking like she is on the verge of tears, and nearly whispers everything. It gets to the point of almost being annoying. “Speak up!” we want to shout. “Don’t be such a push over!” That she is so good in these early scenes makes her evolution into someone almost unrecognizable is remarkable. She erratically swings between two versions of herself, a self-aware version of her meek self and the real-life manifestation of the Black Swan, neither of which is the Nina we started off with. She has been changed forever no matter what happens; there is no going back for her. And when she becomes the Black Swan, on stage and in life, her strength is undeniable. We may not have had any hints that it was there before, but when it bursts forth we don’t second guess it for a minute.
The dynamic between her and her mother is crucial to her character. Expertly played by Barbara Hershey (such an under-recognized actress who really deserved the Golden Globe nomination over Mila Kunis), we see the woman who constructed a safe cocoon for her talented daughter, through whom she could vicariously experience her own frustrated career in ballet. Hershey creates someone who ironically shielded her daughter from the evils of the world while simultaneously thrusting her into one of the most vicious businesses. She may not be a monster, but she is certainly unable to understand how her vise-like grip on Nina’s life stunted her emotional development, leaving her unable to cope with the stressful demands of dancing the lead in a major ballet company.
But again we have to return to Aronofsky. Many people who dismiss the film point to the last reel as sensationalistic. Much of what they dislike is undeniably bad. There is a good ten minutes before the last five that is almost completely unnecessary. We know where things are going and we don’t need it played out histrionically at every turn, including a completely superfluous second visit to Winona Ryder in her hospital room. That was a distasteful scene, not because of the content, but because there was no reason for it. It added nothing except shock.
That is what is disappointing about the movie. Natalie Portman delivers a sensational performance, replacing Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right as my favorite female lead of the year. Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel give fine supporting performances and the film is beautifully shot by Matthew Libatique. So many elements work, but Aronofsky’s perverse vision and ham-fisted techniques exploited many of the delicate elements of this characters emotional disintegration and bashed us over the head with unsophisticated thematic visuals (fractured mirrors, really?). I reservedly recommend seeing the movie if only for Natalie Portman’s extraordinary work.
Note: Though the pop-psychology of the movie didn’t bother me too much, I take Marilyn Ferdinand point about its silliness. I especially love what she writes about Black Swan over at Ferdy on Films: “It seems an affliction of today’s vanguard film directors to look for the source of personality and creativity in the fertile fields of the unconscious that were successfully mined by such masters as Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, and Maya Deren and come out with episodes of Dr. Phil.” Ha! Great point Marilyn, but in fairness directors have long failed here. Some of the directors she mentions have produced shallow nonsense from time to time.