Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Darren Aronofsky, 2010
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

I've been sitting on this review for some time, but considering that Natalie Portman took home the Academy Award for Best Actress due to her performance in Black Swan, now is as good a time as any to post it.

It took me forever to see the film, despite the fact that I had free tickets. I couldn't bring myself to go for the simple fact that I hate Darren Aronofsky's films. I haven't seen The Wrestler yet, but Pi and Requiem for a Dream are easily two of the worst films I've ever seen. I was convinced I was going to hate Black Swan, hate everyone who liked it, and otherwise burst into flames with hatred.

The most glowing thing I can say about the film is that, much to my surprise, I didn't hate it. I didn't particularly like it and fail to see what all the hype and praise is about, but I didn't completely hate it, either. I was reasonably entertained. There are some decent casting choices. The visuals are appealing. I think Portman did a wonderful job, though she is certainly not a strong enough performer to carry a bad script.

Nina, a ballet dancer in a famous New York ballet company, is given the dual roles of the White and Black Swans in an upcoming production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. She's an obsessive perfectionist and has worked hard to be considered for the role. A new dancer, Lily, is seemingly her only competition. When the two girls begin a tense friendship, Nina's competitive edge -- and dark side -- emerge.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the film is that I would rather spend my time watching and recommending the superior works that obviously influenced it. First and foremost is Polanski's Repulsion, a fantastic effort about a repressed young woman who hallucinates a violent sexual encounter and has a complete psychological breakdown. No one does psychosis like Polanski.

Secondly, Haneke's The Piano Teacher. Erika (Isabelle Huppert, probably my biggest crush in contemporary cinema) is a talented pianist who teaches at a respected conservatory. She also lives with her mother and is deeply repressed. When a younger student seeks to have an affair with her, it pushes her tendencies for masochism, punishment, and self-denial out of control. Truly a challenging, transgressive film full of brave performances, The Piano Teacher makes Black Swan utterly pointless. Repression Lite.

Finally, Powell and Pressburger's sumptuous ballet spectacle, The Red Shoes, was an obvious thematic and visual inspiration for Black Swan and remains one of the most beautiful films in cinematic history. Black Swan is once again made pointless by its sheer existence. A talented young dancer moves up in a famous company and is rewarded with leading roles and a promising career. When she falls in love with the company's talented new composer, she is forced to choose between love and the passion to dance that makes up the very core of her being. Tragedy ensues.

Black Swan received a lot of critical acclaim and I have no idea why. Aside from blatantly ripping off some of the films I've mentioned, it's milquetoast and middlebrow, a dull affair made for people who don't actually enjoy challenging films but want to pretend that they do. It flirts with ideas of love, sex, art, repression, the fractured self, and the double, but leaves no last impression. It isn't even really a psychological thriller. The themes of sexual repression and psychosis are interesting enough to generate attention, but Aronofsky resorts to the trite at nearly every turn. He apparently thought it was a good idea to use a musical jewelry box with a ballerina in it as symbolism for Nina's emotional state. He seriously couldn't come up with anything better than that? There are some potential supernatural elements, but these are introduced quickly and just as rapidly ignored. The mysterious rash on Nina's shoulder and the subsequent feathers that sprout from it is an interesting choice, but leads nowhere.

Overall it was entertaining, if dependent on fluff and nonsense. One of my deep, dark secrets is that I'm a sucker for ballet movies. I grew up dancing and never get bored of critiquing performances, which are a lot less expensive to see on film than at the theater. Black Swan definitely benefits from the involvement of the American Ballet Theatre and use of the Pennsylvania Ballet as the corps de ballet. And Natalie Portman does dance her skinny ass off, though a double was reportedly responsible for most of her dancing. Unsurprisingly, this was downplayed during early marketing efforts, but eventually came out as a minor controversy.

Fox released a cheap single disc of Black Swan on DVD, but I'm sure there are also special editions and Blu-ray versions out the wazoo by now. Watch one of the movies mentioned above instead.

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