Black Swan, or, Endless Closeup on Natalie Portman&'s Very Nearly Crying Face

Originally published for The 405
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Release date: 21/01/11
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey

Susan Sontag famously defined camp as “seriousness that fails.” I cannot think of a better way to describe Black Swan. All the story elements and talent were present to make a truly fantastic drama, but as in movies past, Darren Aronofsky shows more concern with showing his hand as a director than in creating a balanced work.

And boy is it unbalanced. Like Christopher Walken shouting “I need more cowbell” in the famous Saturday Night Live skit, it’s not difficult to imagine to imagine Aronofsky standing on the set of Black Swan and shouting, “I got a fever! And the only cure is more blood, more sex, more horror, more everything!” There were few quiet moments to let atmosphere build, no emotional base to build tension from. Clint Mansell’s ridiculously over-the-top score is certainly complicit in this, inspiring laughter on more than one occasion.

Also, Aronofsky seems to have no faith in the intelligence of his audience, hammering the film’s themes in with anvils for nails. For instance, Aronofsky shows Nina staring at her reflection on multiple occasions, accompanied by an overdramatic score. So, Darren, I guess you’re hinting at the dark duality of Nina’s nature? Just a wild guess?

Many of the film’s problems lie in the script. Considering that this movie has been fifteen years in the making, it’s shocking that lines like “I want you to go home and touch yourself,” didn’t set up a cheese flag to anyone involved. Other gems: “the only person standing in your way is you,” and “YOU BEEEEET MEE!” and “Did you suck his cock?,” all delivered with 100% seriousness.

Vincent Cassell is unfortunately blessed with the worst of the script as the director of the Swan Lake production. Take, for example, his expository intro: “You all know the story of Swan Lake [but don’t worry, I’ll tell you anyway!]”. Poor Cassell does the best he can in an abjectly silly role that chiefly consists of reminding Natalie Portman’s Nina that her white swan is perfect but her black swan sucks. Which is apparently all it takes for Nina to spiral out of control.

Young Nina Sayres (I say young, but the way the character behaves, you can’t tell if she’s 12 or 26 years old) cries her way through the oh-so-terrible world of bitchy ballet dancers and hard-driving directors. She is so weak, it is impossible to believe that she made it to the top of this intensely competitive world without losing her mind years ago, a weakness in the film that is nearly impossible to move beyond. Nina never once shows a deep and abiding love for her art, only an unexplained need to make it to the top.

While this is the first time I’ve seen one of Natalie Portman’s films and not thought that she is in fact the worst thing about it, I’m not sure that her ‘constantly on the verge of crying’ facial expression warrants any awards attention, especially considering that 2010 produced a glut of strong female performances. So where’s all the adulation coming from? Call me cynical, but the male-dominated world of film criticism seems to have been endlessly aroused by Portman’s masturbation scene and a completely unnecessary lesbian hook-up with Mila Kunis’s “Black Swan” character. (It should be said that everytime Kunis turns up, the movie improves tremendously).

I kept waiting and hoping for the sort of brilliance you get in the movies Black Swan clearly aspires to, namely All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. In the end, it borrowed the story from the first and the grotesque horror from the latter, with a dash of Polanski weirdness thrown in, creating in the end a Frankenstein's monster lacking the heart of its forebears.

But despite the numerous problems I mentioned, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the ride, as incomprehensible as it was. Winona Ryder hams it up as the aging dancer that Nina replaces, Barbara Hershey adequately translates Piper Laurie’s character from Carrie to this film, and as I mentioned, Mila Kunis lights up the screen. Arm yourself with the knowledge that Black Swan is just a b-movie dressed up in its Sunday best, and while you will frequently be covering your eyes in horror at the film’s more grotesque elements, at least you’ll have some fun.

This entry was posted on and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 . You can leave a response .

6 Responses to “ Black Swan, or, Endless Closeup on Natalie Portman&'s Very Nearly Crying Face ”

  1. For the first time, you and I are in complete agreement about a film.

  2. It was bound to happen eventually!

  3. I think I could have swallowed a lot of these problems if it weren't for two things:

    1) The cheap and lazy use of camera and sound cues to create shocks.

    2) The lack of ambiguity. We're never in any real doubt that Nina is going mad, and a psychological thriller is nothing if its audience can't share the character's paranoia.

    Hitchcock could have made something really great with this material. Aranofsky dropped the ball.

  4. Point 1 irritated me constantly. I've since downloaded the soundtrack, and it's almost ridiculous how little tonal variation there is. From the beginning, it's "BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID! AND DID I MENTION YOU SHOULD JUMP OUT OF YOUR SEAT NOW?"

    I think 2 continues that same problem. There's no 'normal' Nina to measure against, so nothing she does is surprising, and it's very difficult to care about what happens to such a flat, undynamic character.

    I think this movie would have been better served by a director who wasn't so inclined to take its silliness so seriously, maybe a Paul Verhoeven (now that WOULD have been an entertainingly bad movie)

  5. I'm afraid I can't agree with you on this.  I've liked all of Aronofsky's films and this is no exception.  I had it as the second best movie of 2010.  Tip - you'll probably want to avoid his other movies since your primary complaint appears to be with his style (and only secondarily with Portman.)

  6. Actually I love all his other films!


Powered by Blogger.