“Black Swan” has gotten a lot of praise and admiration, giving Natalie Portman both a Golden Globe as well as an Oscar for best leading actress. It also made many critics “top 10 movies of 2010”-list, for example Roger Ebert’s list featured it.
Darren Aronofsky is a highly acclaimed director, his most famous movie endeavor, “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), is a depressing cinematic outing dealing with drug abuse. What’s interesting about “Black Swan” is that people seem to either love it or hate it. After watching it I felt entertained, dazzled and seduced by the films dark tones – but like most seductions, afterwards you realize that what you just experienced was pretty meaningless. But fun none the less!
“Black Swan” tells the tale of the determined ballerina Nina, who pushes herself to the point of bleeding toes and swollen feet to be a perfect dancer. She lives with her controlling mother who still helps her undress, patronizes her continually with the degradation of infantilizing her daughter running the gamut of behaviors from innocuously calling her “my sweet girl” to the horror of projecting her own failed career as a dancer onto Nina (the Portman character).
When Nina’s company puts up a new production of “Swan lake” and Nina is cast in the main role, she faces the challenge of having to dance two very different parts. One is the White Swan Queen, an innocent, fragile and vulnerable princess, as well as her evil twin, the lustful, seductive and betraying black swan. Nina can perfectly dance for the role of the white swan, but can’t quite handle the sensuality for the black swan role. As she desperately tries to get in touch with her sensual side, she starts to fear that her alternate, Lily, is out to get her. This leads to a series of paranoid hallucinations, possible caused by stress and eating disorders.
Firstly, I would like to confess that I have a soft spot for Natalie Portman. I think she’s a fine actress, and unusually ambitious. Even if I haven’t liked any of the films she has been in (“Leon”, “Star Wars”- prequels, “Garden State” to name a few) I was strongly hoping this would be the great film she finally makes. She tries so hard to make good movies, but never seems to pick just the right kind of scripts. However, her acting was convincing and good in “Black Swan”. Portman is able to pull off the innocent, crazed role pretty well. There are times when Portman does not quite convince me that she is actually going nuts, but otherwise Portman’s acting is alright. Nina’s character is not very interesting though, and not very well explained. The movie hints too little of the daily events and artistic demands that might cause her to hallucinate, like eating too little or being overly pressured by the director of the ballet and her mother. She is also your typical “pure” woman who lives with her parents, has no friends, doesn’t understand her own sexuality, only thinks about her “job” and this set of strains and forces her character over the edge of sanity.
I wonder, also, why the advertisement for “Black Swan” implied that Nina would be innocent and kind while Lily, her “rival”, would be slutty and perhaps mean. My interpretation was a bit of the opposite.
Lily, played by Mila Kunis, was actually an empathic and pleasant person and tried on many important occasions, through-out the film, to befriend Nina. In the beginnings of the film Nina is show in the balerina’s locker room with a number of other gossiping ballerinas, where we also come to see the other dancers are, as a group, laughing at Nina and seem to find her person and actions just plainly weird. Nina is isolated from them, not once having any of her co-workers approach or even attempt to engage her in conversation. When Lily, the newest dancer from LA appears, finds Nina ambitious and talented and attempts to approach and talk to Nina striving to forge a bond with her by asking how her practice is proceeding. Lily shows her heart-felt support for Nina in her new role with the touching proclamation: “I can’t wait to see you perform. You’re going to be amazing”. When Lily spies Nina crying, she confronts the director ballet telling him in no uncertain terms that she thinks Nina is brilliant and demands that he respect her as a person and dancer. Quite late in the narrative we see Lily appearing at Nina’s apartment where she gives Nina an invitation to dinner and some drinks. Nina’s reaction to this offer suggests that Lily is the first person who has actually attempted to reach out to Nina and who wishes to establish the fundamentals of a friendship. The only questionable and utterly horrible thing Lily does is that she puts small portion of a drug in Nina’s drink in order to make her relax. Lily admits to this gross mistaken action later and apologizes.
Frankly, Lily was being so nice to Nina (except for the appalling act of drugging Nina’s drink, which is NEVER okay!) I never understood why she thought Lily was out to get her in the Narrative of the Film. Perhaps the point, here, is to indicate Nina is overly paranoid, not able to gauge and evaluate correctly other peoples actions and so comes to read all small kindness as threats. We come to feel a sort of sorrow for Lily wishes to support and befriend Nina, but comes to be seen by Nina as the penultimate “the bad guy”. Kunis played her part very well, coming off as sympathetic and straight-forward; and it is doubly kind to see a Hollywood film portray a secure, blunt woman as somewhat likable.
But one of the most interesting characters was Thomas Leroy as the director of the ballet. Vincent Cassel’s character in the film can only be described as an insane asshole. Leroy keeps telling Nina to lose herself in her role to be able to express raw emotion in her dancing. He also glamorizes the destructive behavior of his former prima ballerina, Beth, who according to him is perhaps such a great dancer because her yielding to the “dark impulses”. Leroy also forces sexual acts on Nina, demanding her to respond to his “touch”. It was no surprise that both Beth and Nina, his two ballerina stars, lose control and demeanor after his outlandish encouragement towards destructive behavior calling for this that the two dancers may transcend the ordinary in order to become great artists. Leroy basically assaults these women’s vulnerable and unstable mental states which yield catastrophic results for the women, but seemingly good results to the selfish director.
Nina’s relationship to her mother, in the narrative arc of “Black Swan”, felt like a rip off from Elfriede Jelinek’s novel, “The Piano Teacher”. Almost all elements in their relationship were similar, so I was not impressed, or swayed by its emotional trajectory, in the film.
I don’t see why “Black Swan” has become so loved by critics and viewers. Aronofsky delivers a film which has plenty of good elements and storylines, but fails to explore these subjects in a clear, meaningful, or even clever way. Nina’s hallucinations, which are a major part of the film, start coming out of nowhere without reason. There are scenes which imply that Nina may be bulimic or anorexic and all the pressure she gets from her mother and director is becoming too much. Even if these explanations exist, I can’t believe that someone would actually start to hallucinate so often and strongly. Unless Nina has gone insane from being so lonely, but unfortunately this possibility is not presented as a major reason. “Black Swan” is a film that suffers from lacking a real identity. It is not high art or a deep film, since the subjects that could have made this a great film are dealt with shallowly. It is not a non-sense feel good movie in any way, for the storyline is too depressing and sad to be that. Perhaps it could have worked as a trash film with a simple social commentary, but then it should have been clearer with what the message was.
What Aronofsky wants to say in “Black Swan” is totally unclear to me, and if you make a light film with a message, you must make it clear to the audience what you want to say. Most critics say that “Black Swan” is an attack on perfectionist culture, even if frankly Nina’s perfectionism seemed very unlikely and hard for me to relate into real life.
“Black Swan” does suck the audience into the story. I understand why many believe the film is a great film with a deep story, since it is made in such a professional and stylish way. The actors are very good, the music is great (even if almost all of it is from the ballet “Swan Lake”, composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) and the choreography is nice. “Black Swan” is decent, but in all honesty is not a very serious film nor a light entertaining film, which leaves “Black Swan” to be a more than decent film, but without any purpose.