The Good: Acting, Costumes, Themes
The Bad: Themes are beat into the viewer’s head, Characters are impossible to empathize with, Direction style is annoying, Pacing drags plot.
The Basics: Black Swan strikes me as a vain acting exercise as the protagonist, Nina, descends into mental illness while the director shakes the camera.
One of the things I have always loathed about taking legitimate (real, paying) work is how it cuts into my review time. My current employment is with the Federal Government away from home. So, in addition to being two hours away from my loving wife each night, I am an hour and a half (each way) commute to the job I am doing. Because I have been training for the last month, I am severely behind with catching movies in theaters (forget about the preview screenings I am used to attending!). So, when my job changed up the hours radically (11 – 7:30 to 3 – 11:30), I decided to view this as an opportunity to catch up on a movie or two that I have actually wanted to see. The first of those is Black Swan.
Going into Black Swan all I actually knew about the film was that it was the first of a crapton of films starring Natalie Portman that are hitting theaters (I swear, she is this year’s Seth Rogan as far as putting movies out!) and that it was a thriller set in the ballet world. I had only seen a single trailer for it and it seemed a lot like the trailer for Single White Female. Even so, I went into Black Swan very excited for the movie.
Nina Sayers is working for a prominent ballet company, living with her oppressive mother and trying to get the lead in the next production, which is Swan Lake. Nina suffers from some element of mental disorder where she scratches herself, much to her mother’s dismay. Nina returns to the ballet where the director, Thomas, is casting the new lead. As Beth, the prior darling of Thomas, is disqualified from the lead, Nina meets Lily, who is not as repressed as Nina is and lacks her technical precision. After being provoked by Thomas, Nina gets the lead, though the director believes Nina is ideal only for the role of the White Swan in the play.
After Beth attempts to kill herself, with Nina having been publicly presented as the Company’s new hope, Thomas pushes Nina to lose herself in the role. This troubles Nina, who has a mastery of technique, but is so driven that she cannot connote the Black Swan’s emotion and passion. She shares her concerns with Lily, who shares them with Thomas, much to Nina’s annoyance. When Lily visits to apologize, the pair goes out on the town and Nina finds herself threatened by Lily’s talent on stage and her fears that Lily is in a relationship with Thomas. As the premiere looms, Nina’s insecurities take over and she descends into madness which is not alleviated by her mother’s actions.
My wife would probably find it astonishing that I am not recommending a film with two Hollywood beautiful women making out and having sex, but there it is. I’ll fly in the face of popular critical opinion with Black Swan and say that this film is not worth seeing. I have no problem making such a recommendation (don’t believe in my independence as a reviewer, check out my review of Gone With The Wind, here!) because from early in the film when the camera’s frenetic movements were distracting, I found myself more annoyed than pleased with or engaged by the film. Black Swan is essentially in the same niche as A Beautiful Mind or The Soloist; it’s a mental illness film. But unlike The Soloist, I found I did not care about the main characters. Indeed, by the time the pills came out, I lost all empathy I might have had for them.
The fundamental problem with Black Swan is that the movie is filmed in an annoying way and the characters are not at all interesting. The filming of the movie is troubling. Director Darren Aronofsky seems obsessed with keeping the camera moving even when his subjects are moving in dynamic and vibrant patterns. The result is a nauseating visual style that confuses the narrative more than it expresses anything germane to the characters.
The seasoned movie viewer will also be disappointed by the plethora of early clues given out that play heavily on the idea that Nina is mentally ill. Because the scratches are evident in the first scene, the viewer knows that Nina suffers some form of disorder and it does not take long before her hallucinations are illustrated and her mother punishes her for things like scratching. The mother issues play off the sense of dedication Nina possesses to become technically flawless, but explain the socially crippled nature of the character that allows her to accept the creepy manipulations of Thomas.
And therein lay one of the many problems with Black Swan for me. Thomas is a predictably lecherous director who had been sleeping with Beth and whose attempts to get Nina to access her passion may be seen as some quirky director trick to access her passion or as a genuinely smarmy character defect. Either Thomas is a brilliant director whose methods attempt to push Nina into her best performance ever or he’s a manipulative jerk using his job to score with ballerinas. The fundamental problem with Black Swan in this part of the film is that I did not care one way or the other on the matter. Nina seems to accept Thomas’s behavior as normal for the setting, despite her mother, Lily and Beth at various times afford her opportunities to distance herself from him. And because the ambiguity exists, I found I didn’t care. As soon as Thomas began probing Nina for answers on her intimate secrets, I was prepared to be disappointed if she slept with him. Conversely, if the creepy questions and inappropriate touching was actually professionally motivated as a quirky artist thing, I wanted to see that the end result worked and Nina gave an incredible performance that tapped into her real passion.
At the end, though, I felt that all the manipulations accomplished was to create an excuse to get Nina into sexually explicit positions and conversations. Nina begins chasing an orgasm and through Lily she has the potential to achieve that and tap into the primal passion Thomas insists she needs. But again, here the style severely dampens the story and the effect. Much of Nina’s sexual exploration is frenetically shot and mixed with disturbing visions. Nina’s mental illness plays even into her sexual escapades and while that rings true for reality, it is hardly something I want to watch when I’m going to the movies. In other words, I’m not one for the current acceptance of sexual titillation mixed with disturbing violence, gore or other imagery. The disturbing always undoes the sensuality and in Black Swan it is undone surprisingly early in the film.
What Black Swan does pull off well is the acting. While I might not have been able to continue empathizing with Nina, despite my love of stories about the artist and their process, and Lily is never developed to the point where she is a viable character on her own (regardless of how the film ended – no spoilers here – I spent much of the film emotionally preparing myself for the idea that Lily might well be a figment of Nina’s imagination, an idea helped along by the overbearing white/black color motif used between Nina and Lily throughout the movie), the acting in Black Swan is top notch. Natalie Portman is convincing as a young woman so dedicated to her craft that she is socially stunted and passionless in many ways. Portman is absolutely able to set her face to portray the determination and professionalism to make her believably a ballerina of such skill and ability. Portman also illustrates from the outset that Nina is not emotionally aware or expressive, which makes the viewer believe completely that Thomas would see that deficiency in her. Portman’s expressiveness peaks early, though; she is amazingly precise in her deliveries in the wake of Nina blowing her audition with Thomas and the vulnerability she expresses with her mother makes her human for, arguably, the only time in the movie. The viewer believes that Nina would be the result of a mother who refers to her as the “most dedicated” dancer in the company, instead of “the best.” That is because of Portman’s performance.
Mila Kunis plays off Portman quite well, but she is given almost nothing to do on her own. Instead, Kunis is presented frequently as the anti-Portman and she is not able to tap into the full energy that she has exhibited on other programs. Kunis succeeds in her supporting role because she has a fearless quality in her performance that makes Lily a viable foil. Kunis deserves some credit for her ability to connote fearlessness with an effortless grace. Similarly, Thomas is well played by Vincent Cassel because he was unsettling almost every moment he was on screen.
But adding it all up, Black Swan does not have enough to hold it together or recommend it. The film looks sloppy and the director relies on far too many abrupt reversals early on with fast, abrupt stops that soon become predictable or formulaic. And the initial intrigue presented by Thomas, that the story will explore the virginal girl trapped within the swan’s body needing true love to free her (Swan Lake as Thomas describes it) goes unrealized as the story spirals down into the tale of artist madness. Despite the stylistic elements that worked – costumes, a few moments of sensuality – the film is ultimately more sloppy than fresh or original. I felt like I had seen too much of it before and by the time the movie turned in a way that was even mildly intriguing, I no longer cared. That is the death knell of a film, but it is where Black Swan ultimately landed.
For other works featuring Natalie Portman, check out my reviews of:
No Strings Attached
The Star Wars Saga
For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.