Sunday 23 January 2011

Review: Black Swan (Aronofsky, 2010)

According to Christian Metz, the cinema, is “better structured than any other art to recreate unconscious states, dream worlds and their projected articulation of our fears and desires.” Watching Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan it’s hard not to agree with Metz’s assessment. Employing every piece of cine-trickery in the book, Aronofsky’s movie skilfully manoeuvres the viewer right into the increasingly freaky head-space of its heroine, the ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman), whose unravelling the film traces as she rehearses dual roles as the White Swan and the Black Swan in a production of Swan Lake. Black Swan accomplishes its blurring of perceptions and personas, reality, dream and fantasy, with a visceral immediacy that I don’t think any other art-form could match. And it’s this more than anything else that makes the movie a memorable - if not, in my view, an entirely satisfying - experience.

I find it a little surprising that some people seem to be taking Black Swan quite so seriously, though. Stylish and exciting as the movie frequently is, I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that, at base, it’s pure hokum - a deluxe pulp-porn fantasia on female creativity and psychosis that mashes up elements of All About Eve (1950), The Red Shoes (1948), Repulsion (1965), Carrie (1976), Fight Club (1999) and Inland Empire (2006), along with some very chic psychobabble of its own. Maybe it’s the film’s setting in the world of ballet that’s convinced people that we’ve entered the realm of High Art here. But I think Black Swan is more accurately described as High Trash, and that it’s in that spirit that the movie should be approached and, for the most part, enjoyed.

There’s nothing very subtle about the film’s psychology, its symbolism, or its use of Swan Lake’s plot (which is thoughtfully sketched for us early on in the film). Can the controlled (read: repressed) Nina overcome her inhibitions to dance the Black Swan with the required wildness, danger and passion? Can she get over her guilt at having usurped the bitter, ageing prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder, in a high-camp cameo)? And what are the motives of the apparently affable new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) who, it seems, might very well be prepared to displace her? If all this wasn’t enough for a girl to contend with, back at home Nina is saddled with a monster-mommy (Barbara Hershey), whose attitude to her daughter is one of smothering over-protectiveness.

There have been complaints from some quarters that Black Swan is not an “authentic” depiction of the ballet world. Does the film ever really purport to be any such thing? Ballet, it seems to me, is really the hook on which Aronofsky hangs his wild trippy ride through various film genres, ending up in the realm of psychological horror. (I love Popsublime’s most excellent description of the movie as “The most passive-aggressively constructed film I've sat through.”)

As well as the previously cited films, Black Swan also reminded me a bit of Atom Egoyan’s overwrought folly Chloe (2009) - right down to a lesbian sex scene that seems to have become a rite-of-passage for every Hollywood actress these days. Aronofsky’s movie is a much more artful piece of work than was Chloe, but it figures female relationships in somewhat comparable ways: ie. in terms of pathology. The days of the female “buddy” movie seem a long, long way behind us in 2011; what we have instead are paranoiac fantasies presented through the aesthetics of hetero-porn.

Despite the complaints one might have about Black Swan's gender politics, Natalie Portman’s commitment to her role is evident in every frame and her performance carries Nina through her startling transitions and the film through its loopier stretches. It’s a vivid, striking interpretation. Kunis is a provocative, ambiguous presence, and Hershey works well with what she has, but, though her performance has been much-commented, in some ways I think she’s under-utilised here. Another performer is also worthy of note: I found Vincent Cassel hilariously awful as the company’s Artistic Director, Thomas, whose somewhat unorthodox methods include groping his dancers during rehearsal and advising masturbation as a research tool. Poor Cassel is also saddled with most of the movie’s worst, spelling-it-all-out dialogue, such as the moment in which he tells Nina: “We know you can dance the White Swan… The real work will come with your metamorphosis into her evil twin!”

Well-written Black Swan is not, but, throughout, Aronofsky’s restless, bobbing camera - and a wonderfully imaginative sound design - generate a kinetic excitement that keeps you hooked even as you’re stifling giggles. This is a deliriously silly film, and I’m not sure that what it’s actually saying about female creativity and psychosis adds up to anything profound at all. But by the time Portman’s Nina is duking it out with her unruly id in the dressing-room, it’s very possible that you’ll be having too much fun to care.


  1. Great review, Alex. I thought you'd like the film, and you're right that it's clearly meant to be a foray into pulp, or "high pulp," a return to the shock-schlock moments of Aronofsky's first two features. I enjoyed those elements sporadically in Black Swan, but his directorial decisions seem to stand in his own way (or my way) sometimes. Natalie Portman's comment in her thank-you to him in her acceptance speech for her Best Actress award at the Golden Globes was revealing; after pushing her toward his vision for several takes, Aronofsky would say, "Now do this take for yourself." A smart and generous gift for a director to offer an actor, but it also suggests that the majority of takes weren't for herself, and the result of that was just too visible in the acting throughout the film.

    While I'm not a fanatical Lynchophile, I think Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive are more consistently artful and assured journeys into the realm of the unconscious (or dream-states or paranoia or alternate realities). Those films also work as authentic (and often fascinating) philosophical inquiries on the conundrum of identity, an achievement that's almost entirely absent from Black Swan. But its overtly melodramatic effect is probably intended to be closer to that of Rosemary's Baby than anything David Lynch has directed, except maybe Eraserhead. Anything that can be so easily and thoroughly lampooned on Saturday Night Live (with Jim Carrey taking on Natalie Portman's role, no less) is bound to be both appealing and unappealing at once.

  2. I agree that the movie focused too much on pushing the imagery and meaning in the audience's faces, and too little on actually developing a theory of the mind or really saying something about obsession. It leads to death? That's incredibly melodramatic, but I suppose it works with this flick. Great review.

  3. Actually, I just remembered that Jim Carrey played Mila Kunis's "black swan" role in that skit on Saturday Night Live, not Natalie Portman's "white swan" role. He had barbecued chicken wings tattooed on his back! :)

  4. Black Swan is the first Aronofsky film I don't want to rewatch, I love the other films he made.

    I think you hit the nail on the head, pure hokum or hot air. But good entertainment.

    Perhaps the Hans christian andersen tale "The Emperors New Clothes" reflects the sceptics
    amongst all the positive reviewers.

    I felt Aronofsky sold out and had nothing new to say. To me, it was like a commercial remake of Requiem for a dream, but not as interesting visually or as emotionally powerful, and not as relatable to the real world.

  5. Thanks for the comments; glad you enjoyed the review.

    I need to see that SNL skit! :)

  6. 'Masturbation as a research tool'? Not just applicable to ballet, methinks.

    A great review, and I do so agree with the gist of it. I saw the film a week ago, and was hooked till the end. It was very entertaining and rather silly. My wife hated it. I think she was expecting a Bolshoi documentary or something!