Darren Aronofsky is a hit-or-miss director. There are a few people out there who enjoy all of his work, but they have bad taste. As far as the box office and critics are concerned, he is a hit-or-miss director. After seeing the tantalizing trailer, I was eager to discover whether his newest offering would be a visually inspiring, deep character study in the mold of Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, or merely a pretentious bore-fest lacking any sort of focus, a-la The Fountain and Pi. Unfortunately, Black Swan falls under the latter category.
Natalie Portman masterfully portrays newly-christened prima ballerina Nina Sayers, as she prepares for her starring role in a production of Swan Lake. The ballet chronicles the story of a woman trapped in a swan’s body, and her struggle against her seductress doppelganger as they quarrel over the same lover. The white swan kills herself at the end. Will art imitate life, I wonder? Portman is wonderful in the role; can’t say anything bad about her performance. I hope she wins an Oscar or a Golden Globe. Well, for her sake, I hope it’s an Oscar. She plays the quiet, neurotic, and singularly obsessed Nina convincingly; unfortunately, her efforts are wasted on an underwritten, one-dimensional character. She lacks all of the complexity of emotion and history Aronofsky showed us through Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Nina is less a protagonist, and more a plot device through which Aronofsky can display weird visions. Portman is joined by Mila Kunis, who portrays Nina’s equally underdeveloped foil, the loose and uninhibited Lily, new to the NYC ballet and fresh of the boat from San Francisco, which is where a loose and uninhibited ballet dancer would be from, I guess. Kunis is super hot, but her acting skills leave a lot on the table, and she is immediately dwarfed and engulfed by Portman’s skill.
Vincent Cassel, also known as “The French guy in all Hollywood movies who isn’t Jean Reno,” is very good in his role as the hyper controlling/egotistical ballet choreographer Thomas (pronounced “Toemaw.” Don’t think the French will ever be in danger of getting hooked on phonics). Thomas wants Nina, who doesn’t appear to have ever even been on a date, to become a sexual being in order to better portray the Black Swan persona in the ballet. His designs on her may not be completely professional. Thomas’ intimidating and arrogant influence on Nina is buffeted by her equally controlling and obsessive mother, also very ably played by Barbara Hershey. Her love for Nina is real, but is constantly undermined by her daughter’s role as a vessel for her own underachieved dreams of ballet stardom. She is the closest thing to a complex character we get in Black Swan. Winona Ryder also shows up in a smaller role, as an older, and former, prima ballerina, who has problems with liquor and threatens to break into apartments. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Winona Ryder plays a just-over-the-hill celebrity with alcoholism issues and a penchant for breaking and entering. Do the scenes she’s in count as a documentary? Did they even show her a script, or did they just start rolling and ask her to talk a bit?
The film is technically sound. That is a truth. The shot selection and scene composition are nearly flawless. We rarely seem to see any daylight, as Nina’s life is confined to dark theater stages, claustrophobic backstage tunnels, and a dark apartment she shares with her mother where privacy doesn’t exist. Some of the imagery is beautiful bordering on art, especially the transformation scenes during the ballet near the end. The image-play between the body we see and reflected shadows creates a wonderful contrast. But I’m saying too much.
The score is also solid. Clint Mansell, who has teamed up with Aronofsky before in Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, does some good work though most of it is treatments of ballet music, most notably Swan lake itself. But you can’t really go wrong with Tchaikovsky, so no complaints. The movie does lack strong original pieces, which were a staple in earlier Aronofsky-Mansell collaborations. It is really a shame, since Mansell is extremely talented.
Overall, the performances are quite strong in the film, and the technical aspects are also done well; however, the narrative is what really weighs Black Swan down. The bare bones of the plot are rather straight-forward and cliche. Rivalry, jealousy, art mimicking life…it’s all there though in a painfully undeveloped state. Aronofsky has served us with the fetus of a story; we know a lot of things because they are told to us through dialogue, not because we see it. For example, we know Nina is a perfectionist because others say she is. She doesn’t seem to exhibit any of that during her time onscreen, except for one scene where we see her neatly line up makeup on her dresser. The transformations and craziness are presented well cinematically, but in terms of story all those themes are terribly underdeveloped. Aronofsky shows us the metaphor, and then says “trust me, there’s an underlying theme here.” And the final act is…well…without going into spoilers, I was laughing my ass off for the last 20 minutes. I don’t think that’s what the filmmakers had in mind. But then again, when is true camp ever intentional?
Some have praised the film’s ability to blur reality, genuinely confusing the audience as to what was real, and what wasn’t…I just didn’t see it. Seemed pretty clear cut to me. I fully admit that I, unlike the Pope, am fallible. I could be wrong. But this is the formula I used to piece the truth together: the parts where she’s turning into a swan and stabbing evil phantoms are illusions, and the non-crazy, normal stuff is real. Of course, spending time trying to color in the lines between reality and illusion is really not the point of a film like this. Being able to lose yourself in Nina’s unstable mind would theoretically be the real prize here. Unfortunately, we can’t. I really wish someone had taken the time to show Aronofsky Satoshi Kon’s 1997 psychological thriller Perfect Blue, a superior film to which I couldn’t help but compare Black Swan. If you’ve seen it, you know why. Of course, Kon’s film is animated, and the medium lends itself more naturally to manipulating an audience’s perception of reality, since every single line and color can be defined by the filmmaker. However, Perfect Blue proves far superior to Black Swan in creating a real sense of fear, and danger, though the source is never clearly identifiable until the end.
You see, Black Swan‘s biggest flaw is the complete lack of conflict. A good story needs an antagonistic element. I don’t mean every movie needs an evil God-King set to destroy the world, but some sort of negative force needs to drive the narrative forward. Black Swan lacks this crucial element. There is no conflict. Nina already has the starring role; she is a good ballet dancer; no one is out to get her; people try to be her friends. It’s painfully clear from the very beginning this is all happening in Nina’s mind. We know Lily isn’t really trying to replace her; we know Nina is in no danger, and Aronofsky makes no attempt to bring any negative outside force into the equation, so basically it boils down to you spending 2 hours watching a crazy person scratch her back rashes.
It’s hard for me to say the film is “bad.” Objectively, it isn’t. It is very well-crafted and contains some strong performances. Rather it would be more accurate to say “I didn’t like it.” The film just seems to be missing something; it didn’t engage me, personally. It’s strange, since the same reasons I’m using to bash this film didn’t affect my enjoyment of Tron: Legacy, which had a much weaker narrative.
People of the world, my recommendation is to skip Black Swan. It is a boring film focused upon a completely uninteresting character. If you want to see the genre done right, I suggest Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, instead. And yes, I know it’s a cartoon, but trust me.