Black Swan

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.

Aronofsky's not-so subtle symbolism

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.

Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel

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.

Mila Kunis and Portman

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.

Barbara Hershey as the domineering mother


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.   





Filed under Current Releases

9 responses to “Black Swan

  1. Jason – Wow! I haven’t seen Aronofsky pummeled so mercilessly prior to this. I wonder how you felt about his previous work. I always thought he was one of the lesser of the new vanguard (which I would include P.T. Anderson, Nolan and Fincher – in that order – as the leaders of this generation) – but I never found his direction to be as deficient as your argue it to be here. I do take your point that he does play for the cheap thrills in much of this, but in the context of the film I didn’t think it was that inappropriate, and with the other elements working so well, I was able to be far more forgiving.

    I do agree with you in part, however. It is Portman’s performance that makes the film fascinating to watch. She makes the film her own. I’d be shocked if she doesn’t get the Oscar.

    • Wow! I haven’t seen Aronofsky pummeled so mercilessly…
      David, I have to admit this comment does not make me proud. I really try hard not to be unnecessarily nasty, but when I feel strongly I really can’t hold back. The only other reviews I have read are yours and Marilyn’s, so I haven’t had much to compare it with.

      I have to admit that I haven’t seen Pi since it came out in 1998. I remember liking it, but who knows what I would think now. I missed Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. I know a lot of people admire both (especially Sam Juliano for the later). I did see The Wrestler last year and I did not like that movie at all. I have no idea what the film program is like at Harvard (actually I wasn’t aware they had a film program), but if, before hearing about Aronofsky and seeing The Wrestler and Black Swan, I have a feeling I would have imagined movies like them coming out of a Harvard film student: pseudo-intellectual and slightly mean-spirited.

      And here I am coming off as pseudo-intellectual and mean-spirited myself here. The thing working in Aronofsky’s favor is he has found people willing to pay him for it. I haven’t.

  2. Jason – I’ve found most over estimate The Wrestler, and it is there too where most of the merit should go to the actors. But I do find his other works compelling for what Aronofsky brought to the table. Likewise with Black Swan I found the ballet scenes well directed. And something must be said for his ability to get routinely good performances from his leads. I agree there is a mean spiritedness and perhaps an arrogant strain inherent in his work (except for The Fountain) but that isn’t always a bad thing in my book.

    • Oh yes, The Wrestler was a little painful for me. I suppose Mickey Rourke was fine, though I didn’t think it was a particularly amazing performance.

      I think you make a good point about the dancing. I actually think Aronofsky did some good things in the movie and the the dancing is one of them. He may be great with actors (but then , but for his two latest, he hasn’t done well for them narratively. I need to see the other two before I make more blanket statements about his work though. It’s amazing how a movie that I recommend seeing has increased my antipathy for Aronofsky.

  3. Glad to see what you thought of this one. We’re big Portman fans here (well, okay, I like her clothes, and she’s long been Erik’s #1 celebrity crush) but this isn’t the kind of film I watch. We watched the trailer and were curious how the film would be received!

  4. Great, probing piece with your typical commanding judgements! I just saw the film again this afternoon and again found it hugely problematic, though this time I was aware of Portman’s extraordinary work and the exquisite compositions of Matthew Libatique. The last reel was awful, and you took the words right out of my mouth when you site the intent was nothing but shock. A friends who attended said it was a cross between Poltergeist and The Turning Point (Ha!) but your comparison (The Red Shoes and Repulsion) is even better. I thought THE FOUNTAIN a supreme masterpiece, but with this film Aronofsky has clearly lost his footing.

    • POLTERGEIST and THE TURNING POINT! That made me laugh pretty hard. And I have to say the further away I get from it the less I like it, though I still think Natalie Portman is extraordinary in it and well worth seeing just for her. But as Gene Siskel said as he half-heartedly endorsed FATAL ATTRACTION: “See it, but prepare to be disappointed.” As I told David, I still need to see THE FOUNTAIN (not to mention REQUIEM FOR A DREAM), but I think you are right. If Aronofsky ever had a footing he has clearly slipped here.

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