For a film that is hoovering up awards nominations so hungrily, it was more than a little surprising to see Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan attracting such terrible reviews and critical derision. And then I saw it. It’s one of those films that divides opinion fairly starkly, mixing as it does qualities of trash and art. On the one hand, it’s a drama about ballet, built around fine-tuned, highly-wrought, Oscar-bait performances, magnificent costume design and nervous but precise camerawork. On the other, its a histrionic genre piece with sensationalist sexuality and all the subtlety of a stubbed toe. But can it reconcile those two sides of itself and become a beautiful hybrid creature, or will it stay a mess of ill-suited parts? I like the view from up here on the fence…
Natalie Portman gives everything she’s got to a role that is designed to subject her to maximum torque and torment. It’s a showy role, for sure, and one that asks her to produce stubbornly naturalistic responses to increasing supernatural provocations. That’s fine, except that it wastes her good work amidst all the blood and thunder. It’s like watching her try to keep her method mask on while Aronofsky keeps pelting her with surreal improvisational challenges (although the finished film reads like the exact opposite of improvisation). It seems immature, even spiteful of him to make her produce one kind of performance and then knock it sideways with these horror-genre interventions. Isn’t thereenough drama in the life of an obsessive perfectionist ballerina without needing to soup it up with a bunch of hysterical hallucinations? Why does Mickey Rourke’s role in The Wrestler get to be a gritty portrayal of a man stretching the limits of his body and dignity, while this, its female equivalent, descends into a psychosexual ghost-train? Could it be a conspiracy of presumptions about female sensibilities and their all-round irrational irreconcilabilites?
Aronofsky aspires to greatness. You can see it in the way he refuses to shy away from “big” themes. Unfortunately, the “big” themes (art, sex, death, madness) cause problems because Aronofsky has no way to tackle them without some loss of detail, or without reducing them to a set of archetypes and stock situations. Hence the trite mapping of the film’s plot onto the plot of Swan Lake (in case you didn’t pick up on it, the end credits list each character’s dual role. Hey, life is imitating art!), or the motif of the performer confusing her fictional role with her true self, or the concept of performance as perfectible not through technique and precision, but through passion and emotional honesty. Because it concerns confusions between reality and illusion, you might think that it’s all open to interpretation, a whirl of ambiguous images: kneejerk comparisons with Mulholland Driveare as inevitable as they are misplaced – Aronofsky can’t resist wrapping up and explaining everything away. I suspect he’d have liked to pull a Lynch or a Kubrick (moreShining than Barry Lyndon) on us, and ended up delivering a Von Trier: like Von Trier, there’s a maddening mash-up of the pure and the profane, the grave and the goofy, the studied and the fatuous. And like Von Trier, even if we can enjoy the crazy sideshow, we have a sneaking suspicion that our director has little sense of irony about the situation, and truly believes in the high cultural worth of what he’s doing. He’s entertaining us. I think he thinks he’s explaining us.
Just as we might suspect that Thomas Leroy (the ballet director played with a sneer by Vincent Cassel) was really just interested in nailing his ballerinas instead of inspiring or advising them (his “notes” to Natalie Portman’s Nina consist of vague platitudes like “lose yourself” or “seduce the audience”), so we suspect ulterior motives in Aronofsky’s interest in the sexual sub-texts of his material, as if he found himself having to tell a story about women and assumed that, left to their own devices, they would all want to screw or kill each other in a full-on, knicker-shredding catfight. Despite being told that Nina is frigid, she finds her arched-back, breathy moaning form pretty fast following an instruction to “go home and touch herself”, and Aronofsky, forgetting the nature of the character for a minute, obliges us with a close of up Portman’s cotton-clad butt as she herself in hand (and vice versa). While the film is meticulous in its cataloguing of the physical toll exacted on the over-stretched, breaking-point bodies of dancers, their bodies become suitably smooth and pliant when called upon to get it on. One suspects again that Aronofsky wants us to find some parallel between himself and Thomas in the way they both “scandalise” the clean image of their star, equating sexual release with creative expression, all under the direction of a male fantasy of the awakening child-woman. While we’re on that subject, can any trained ballet dancers out there confirm whether or not the instruction to “lose yourself” is a good one when preparing to dance Swan Lake? Or is it just a short cut to broken ankles or a collision with the scenery? When Vincent Cassell espouses “passion” as the key ingredient for dancing the part of the Black Swan, he sounds about as sincere as when David Beckham prematurely ejaculates that very word every time he gives a speech about why British sport is the best in the world (the subtext of all said speeches is: “we’re rubbish at games, but we really enjoy playing them”). Worst of all, it seems like this is just another in a long line of films (made by men) in which the degradation and destruction of women is portrayed as something they bring upon themselves. Thomas is revealed not to be the catalyst for Nina’s destruction, but the one who genuinely believed in her all along. He wasn’t just being an old pervert, but prompting her asymmetrically into finding the perfect ballerina inside herself. All her other problems were caused by the network of jealous, manipulative, slighted or imagined femininities that either stem Nina’s creativity by creating a wall of judgement and conspiracy, or provoke her inner demons into a confluence of illusions that will eventually lead her to self destruction, which she interprets as her ultimate achievement. That Nina actually needed psychiatric help all along, and her life is not worth a bit of dancing, however perfect it might have been, is not up for discussion. So, in the final analysis, the same may be true of this film – however precisely Black Swan plays out its plot and strikes its final pose, it really wasn’t worth all the pain and abuse.
The case against:
The movie combines horror-movie tropes with The Red Shoes, All About Eve and every movie about show business that insists you don’t have to be crazy to become a star but it doesn’t hurt either. The movie is so damn out-there in every way that you can’t help admiring Aronofsky for daring to be so very, very absurd.[...]Aronofsky, working with an original script by Andres Heinz that later was rewritten by Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin, never succeeds in wedding genre elements to the world of ballet. [...] White Swan/Black Swan dynamics almost work, but the horror-movie nonsense drags everything down the rabbit hole of preposterousness. (Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter)
The idea behind “Black Swan,” in as much as it has an idea beyond the presentation of sensation, is that the quest for perfection can unhinge the unwary. It’s a plausible notion, but the problem is that Aronofsky in his deterministic zeal can’t help but stack that deck. What that means is that Nina is a walking nervous breakdown from the moment we see her. With her unexplained scratch marks and penchant for seeing strange people on the subway, there’s not a moment in the film in which she feels like anything other than a wreck. This lack of subtlety in Nina’s predicament means that, all the grueling physical work the actresses put in to make the dancing convincing notwithstanding, there is nowhere of sustained interest for their characters to go. But expecting subtlety from a Darren Aronofsky film is like expecting Pixar to announce a slasher movie. Not in this lifetime. (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times)
There is no dependency greater or more merciless than an audience’s identification with an obsession-ridden woman. Gone with the Wind: crazy southern belle vows epic struggle for self-redemption. Camille: French courtesan dies for love, heartbreak and Garbo-luminous fatal illness. The Red Shoes: genius-inspired dancer kills herself for love and art. [...] The film is lurid, melodramatic, over-the-top – and currently a hot awards favourite. Aronofsky must have hypnotic powers over jurors and voters. He won the Venice Golden Lion for the equally overwrought The Wrestler. If Black Swan is watchable, it is the watchability of a car crash. The same feeling of “no, it can’t be happening” colours the spectacle of La Portman running her gaudy gauntlet of nightmares: hallucinations, intrigue, bloodshed; at one point real feathers growing from her flesh. Will the Tchaikovsky role prove her cygnet tune or her swan song? Can you bear to look, or not to look? Have you the self-discipline to look away, even to leave, even to save your soul – you really should – by finding another, better movie? (Nigel Andrew Financial Times)
Aronofsky’s film represents one more dubious milestone in the mainstreaming of camp. A seductive style—and, crucially, an elastic category—camp was ripe for co-optation from the start, poised to insinuate its way into both high art and popular culture. As it became more visible, the ideal of naive camp grew increasingly remote. The major filmmakers we associate with the sensibility (R.W. Fassbinder, John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar) are deliberate and certainly self-aware. Pop art and glam rock, with their flamboyant avatars Andy Warhol and David Bowie, expanded the domain of camp. [...] There’s no denying that Black Swan is a riot: Aronofsky piles on the nutty hysterics, and while Portman is obliged to play it straight, the supporting actors make a feast of their hammy roles (Vincent Cassell’s curled-lip maestro, Mila Kunis’ swaggering bad girl, Barbara Hershey’s Kabuki-ghoul stage mother). But the film also illustrates the pitfalls of intentional camp, especially in the hands of someone who thinks of it simply as a lowly form. A signal quality of camp is that it blurs high and low, good and bad. For the creator of conscious camp, this sometimes translates to an optimistic—or, worse still, opportunistic—belief that “bad” can pass for “good,” as long as it’s tarted up the right way. (Dennis Lim, Slate)
I will say that Portman delivers an impassioned performance in this film, in the sense that she wholeheartedly attacks the role in much the same way that her character is asked to attack a set of pirouettes at one point. Yet Nina is not what I would call a complex or interesting character — in fact, I dare say she is one-note: crazy. From the moment the film opens, it’s clear that this person we are supposed to identify with and follow has an obvious screw loose — her mom has a screw loose, their home life is screwy (think Carrie) and Nina always seems to have her emotions screwed with by the one thing she is supposed to love: dancing.Taken altogether, I found it hard to buy that this character — who never once in the film seems to enjoy what she’s doing — would actually go to the lengths she does and sacrifice what she does to reach her goal. And, despite the overarching theme of negative transformation (which is quite literally prophesied at one point early in the film), the only transformation I saw in Nina was that of a girl who goes from being crazy to being crazier. This is not exactly a new trait of Aronofsky’s work, but at least with some of his earlier entries there’s a sense that at one point the characters were not the mess we see them as — that even if they don’t go anywhere, they at least came from somewhere better to arrive where they are. Nina offers no sense of real transition — just the heavy-handed and obvious “transformation” into the embodiment of the titular creature, which again, is no surprise given how unbalanced the character is from the start. (Kofi Outlaw, Screen Rant)