By Jason A. Hill
Black Swan, USA, 2010
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Black Swan has to be one of the most talked-about films of 2010. You might enjoy this film, but it may be for different reasons than you expect. I give director Darren Aronofsky credit for creating such a provocative and alluring spectacle; it’s all his doing. I don’t think the ballet is any more popular than it was before; the subject matter doesn’t seem to be catching any sort of momentum in pop culture, so why does this film seem to find its way into the middle of so many film conversations?
Aronofsky is known for his psychologically damaged characters, from Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in Pi (1998) to Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) in The Wrestler (2008), these characters equally recognize their faults and fight to regain their sense of importance as much as they fail and self-destruct. Aronofsky has become the leading director of character destructive descent, but with his latest doomed protagonist, he’s stepped away from the reasonable situations that lead people into their own destruction and settled for pure insanity. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is an up-and-coming ballerina, but she is unstable. Nina’s self-destruction is apparent from the very beginning, from the opening frame of the film, when she is in the midst of a hallucinatory dream. Nina is like part of a train being taken along for the ride; she makes no important decisions in the film and it may have even been the choice of her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), that Nina get involved with the ballet in the first place. Nina anticipates she will be featured more this year, but she is still a star in waiting. She finally gets her chance when her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), replaces his star performer, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), with someone “fresh.” After fumbling her audition and her plea for the lead role, she has a good cry, eats a finger smudge of cake and concedes her defeat to her rival. When she finds out she has, in fact, been picked for the lead role, nothing in her changes. She is still crying at every emotional turn, too afraid to touch herself, to go out and meet boys, to tell her mom off, and still hallucinating. What is wrong with Nina? Is she schizophrenic? Is she manic-depressive?
If you compare Randy from The Wrestler, Aronosky’s previous film, to Nina in Black Swan, there is much character development missing in the latter. We understand Randy’s faults and weaknesses as he recognizes them in himself; he yearns for attention, he needs love, and the only place he feels he can have it is in the ring, where it may cost him everything. He makes that choice willingly. Nina yearns for perfection, but crumbles when she is rejected by her peers; she needs approval, but coils into her own paranoia and accuses the people around her of sabotage. It appears as though this is her own doing, but she is led by strong external forces. Nothing is clear.
At its most basic level, Aronofsky violates the rules of his own story world. We are never sure what is reality with Nina – is she dreaming, hallucinating, or drugged? This gives Aronofsky the ability to introduce any device to advance the story, without his characters finding their own way to resolution. This way he can end the film however he wants without having to submit to pesky logic. At the end I was waiting for Nina to wake up yet again to find herself still in her room, having never left for her grand performance. Her mother has locked her in. She would say something like “It was for your own good,” then the door would burst open and the men in white coats would drag her off, having discovered that it was she who had killed her alternate, Lily (Mila Kunis). But that would be the typical ending to a horror film; this is an art film, remember?
Portman has certainly arrived as a top actress, but her performance in this film is a little overstated. She’s fragile, but it’s only when CGI intervenes that her character truly changes. Nina is a victim from beginning to end, and after a flood of tears she implodes, on cue, but my problem isn’t with Portman’s performance – it’s with Nina. At times I felt I identified with Thomas, the sleazy director: “Stop apologizing!” Because Black Swan is protected by a shield of pretentiousness, it’s hard to criticize it with out being labeled a philistine, but at the same time the human emotions explored by this film are fairly one-sided. Obsession, abuse of power, and paranoia are things we all feel, but it’s not us all the time.
There was no one for me to identify with in this film because everyone is so depraved. Among the choices to guide us through this story are the arrogant slime ball director, the overbearing daughter-fetish mother, and the slut Lily. All we have left is Nina, who is experiencing paranormal activity. I couldn’t connect with her because I didn’t understand the connection between her paranoia and her delusions. I could understand her suspicion of the people around her, not knowing if they were trying to help her out of admiration or hurt her out of jealousy, but nothing in the film explained the visual phenomena she was experiencing. The scene in which Nina makes her transformation into the black swan was dazzling and obviously a delusion, but the effect of these delusions seem to play on the type of thrills one gets from a slasher flick. Many of the techniques here reminded me more of Wes Craven than Federico Fellini. Aronofsky has created a horror film dressed in an artsy veil; people expecting an art film will probably leave the cinema confused. Instead of a high-art piece about the pressures of greatness, we end up with a soapy, melodrama-laden horror film.
Jason A. Hill is the Founder, Owner and Editor In Chief of Movies I Didn’t Get.com. He is a film critic and writer of articles and film reviews covering a variety of genres and film news that have been syndicated to many sites in the film blogosphere. He specializes in independent film in the US and Asia.
For more information please contact Jason at JasonAHill@MoviesIDidn’tGet.com.