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Posted on Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Dave!Tonight I'm going to discuss the hot mess of a film Black Swan.

I never intended to see this movie because A) I don't like ballet, and B) I find Darren Aronofsky films to be very hit-or-miss (I loathed The Fountain and The Wrestler but loved Requiem for a Dream and Pi). I was perfectly content waiting for it to come to Netflix so I could rent it and not have to suffer through it in a theater with a bunch of rude assholes. However... I kept hearing what a brilliant masterpiece Black Swan is. And Rotten Tomatoes has it pegged at 87% which is pretty darn good.

Sooooo... tonight was the night...

DAVETOON: Lil' Dave is the Black Swan!

Needless to say, this review will be riddled with spoilers. If you haven't seen the film and are planning to, you might want to bookmark this page and come back later.

For the most part, I found Black Swan to be pretentious crap with fantastic performances and some admittedly disturbing scenes. Despite wanting to enjoy it, I was mostly bored through the predictable story and unimpressed with the heavy-handed presentation. The only reason I can honestly say I'm glad I saw it is so that I can knowingly roll my eyes into the back of my head when people start talking about what a fantastical work of art it is.

And I suppose I should get that problem out of the way first, because THEY NEVER LET YOU FORGET IT...


30 minutes into the movie I wanted to stand up and scream "OKAY, IT'S ART! WE FUCKING GET IT!" because I was so sick and tired of the massive film grain that was so obviously meant to give the picture an art-house cinema look. I mean give me a break... usually when movies are this bad, they're deemed to be in need of restoration. Studios spend millions trying to get rid of abusive grain when re-issuing old films because modern movie audiences are accustomed to a cleaner picture. But Aronofsky is apparently so desperate that Black Swan not be mistaken for anything but art, that he takes it to an entirely new level.

And I get that. As somebody who started out in photography using a film camera, I totally miss the beautiful, warm, classic "feel" of film that's been lost in the digital age. But there has to be limits. When I spend more time trying to ignore the grainy haze obstructing the picture than I do on the story, you've failed. Artistic visual choices I totally understand. But, just like JJ Abrams' absurdly stupid overuse of lens flair in nearly every fucking scene of Star Trek, I didn't agree with the choice here, finding it more "distractive" than "artistic."

That's kind of a shame, because if there's one thing that truly shines here, it's the actors. Natalie Portman's wooden and shitty performance in the heinous Star Wars prequels can forever rest directly on George Lucas's shoulders, because she is genius working with Aronofsky. Her vulnerable and damaged brand of crazy is nothing short of remarkable here. And it doesn't stop there. Barbara Hershey played her abusive-obsessive mother with such beautiful restraint and subtlety that it was disturbing to watch. There was nothing forced or synthetic about it, which makes me look at her work in Beaches in an entirely different light. Mila Kunis turned in an unexpectedly great performance as well (SHE'S MEG ON FAMILY GUY FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE!). And then there's Winona Rider. I have no idea what it is, but every time I see her on screen I am inexplicably mesmerized, and her tiny role in Black Swan was no exception.

Sadly, none none of the awesome acting can save the story, which was remarkably unremarkable despite special effects and bizarre pandering to make it appear that way.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, an aspiring prima ballerina who hammers away at her dancing with a fury so intense that she's borderline crazy before she goes literally crazy. Nina's golden ticket arrives when she is given the lead performance in Swan Lake. It's then that her never-ending drive to achieve perfection ultimately consumes her, and the movie takes us along for the ride right to the bitter end (which, if you know the story of Swan Lake, is exactly what you'd think it is).

As I mentioned, Nina has serious psychological problems... assumably brought on by her controlling and equally crazy mother, but amplified by her overwhelming obsession to perform flawlessly at the ballet. This eventually starts to transform her with ever-escalating psycho-delusions which are meant to echo the transformation she undergoes from White Swan to Black Swan within the performance of Swan Lake (even though they are different characters, they are played by the same dancer to illustrate the mirrored duality of good vs. evil, or so I'd imagine).


I gave up on counting the direct references, which usually go something like this: "Oh Nina, we know you can play the graceful White Swan perfectly, now you just need to let yourself go so you can transform into the seductive Black Swan!"

And let herself go she does... falling deeper and deeper into her transformation until she destroys herself getting there.

The film tries some trickery to make you wonder how much of Nina's world is real and how much is just her twisted delusions. It's very cool at first, but it ultimately goes over the top and fails. At one point Nina goes into her mother's room where dozens of mommy's painting self-portraits come alive to torment her. Until this point, you only get flashes of crazy, but now it's bluntly spelled out for you. Nina is fucking insane. Any blurring of the line from this point onward is pointless because you've already got The Big Picture. Even worse... it doesn't matter from then on what's real and what's not. It doesn't matter if her dancing partner Lily is trying to be a friend or is instead a vicious, conniving rival who is intentionally messing with her head. It doesn't matter whether her director is just trying to get her best performance or is instead manipulating her in some kind of seductive game. It doesn't matter whether her mother is just concerned and over-protective or instead an abusive, crazy oppressor. It doesn't even matter if her mother is even real or instead just a delusional invention. None of it matters at a point when it very much should matter.

But it doesn't, and so I stopped caring.

Instead I was just bored. If I liked ballet even a little bit, I could have at least found entertainment in the many beautifully-filmed dance sequences. But, alas...

I truly wish that Aronofsky would have had a lighter touch when crafting this movie. Something tells me that it could have been so much more had only he not tried so damn hard to make "art" and just let it become art.

As an example...

At one point Nina goes out with Lily for a wild night of clubbing with drugs, alcohol, and men — all in defiance of her mother. The evening culminates when Nina brings Lily home for some hot lesbionic sex — also in defiance of her mother. In order to make sure they're not disturbed, Nina props her bedroom door with a wood board so Mommy Dearest can't open it. The next morning she oversleeps and awakes to see the board has been moved, the door is ajar, and Lily has gone. NOW... since the board was moved, the only assumption you can make is that Lily was really there and Nina didn't imagine it. EXCEPT... when Nina arrives late to the theater, Lily acts as if she never went home with her (delivering the movie's best line in the process). This leaves the viewer wondering... "Did Nina imagine it all and never prop the door, or is Lily lying to make her (more) crazy and steal her role?"

Had the film continued down THAT road, we could have had a beautifully fucked-up ending where the viewer is left to decide what was real, what wasn't, and what that all means to them... instead of what it means to Aronofsky.

Except, as I said, it ended up not mattering what's real or not when you've got over-the-top scenes of Natalie Portman literally becoming the Black Swan at the end (an "homage" to Jeff Goldblum in The Fly?). Way to spell it out. I would have totally missed the symbolism if you hadn't done that. So instead of letting Portman's performance stand on its own, we get special effects to take the audience by the hand and lead them to the only conclusion possible. In my humble opinion, this sucked all the power out of her character, but c'est la vie.

Black Swan ultimately fails as a film and lost my interest. Still, I give it a C- for the awesome performances.

Darren Aronofsky has been hired to direct Hugh Jackman in Marvel Comics next Wolverine movie. Granted, he has no choice to be fairly direct with such a mainstream film, but I'm hoping he can elevate the material to something worth watching. He is, after all, still the guy who made Requiem for a Dream and Pi, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Though Black Swan leaves me with more doubts than I had before I saw it.

I'm fickle that way.

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Categories: DaveToons 2010, Movies 2010Click To It: Permalink


  1. Robin says:

    …so, basically what you’re telling me is that the protagonist character is a paranoid schizophrenic in a ballet tutu? Nice. I predict an Oscar for Natalie Portman.

    • Dave2 says:

      You’re probably right. And… oddly enough… she deserves it. I only wish Darren Aronofsky thought so too. Then maybe he wouldn’t have buried her performance in “art” and needless hand-holding for the audience, letting her work speak for itself.

  2. i’ve never seen swan lake…would that help or hinder me seeing this film? please note that i am not a fan of ballet (i feel asleep during the nutcracker…all three times that i tried to see it).

    • Dave2 says:

      No worries there. They slap you in the face with the story of Swan Lake by way of shameless exposition more than once! Never mind that you could have easily figured it out for yourself as the movie unfolds… they (literally) interrupt the film at one point so the theater director can (literally) say “You all know the story of Swan Lake…” followed by the Cliffs Notes version of Swan Lake (literally!). Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem. They simply do not give the audience any credit for being smart enough to figure shit out on their own without the special effects, hand-holding, and forced literalism in an otherwise interpretive work. You may question certain aspects of Nina’s world, but you will NEVER get lost in it… which, sadly, should have been the whole point.

  3. RW says:

    You had me at “just look at all that fucking grain.” Artifice is always used to cover a lack of depth and value. I’m staying away from it then. Thanks!

    • Dave2 says:

      Except dozens of reviewers which have been mesmerized by Black Swan would undoubtedly tell you it “enhances the production values and reinforces the character’s flaws” or some crap like that, so maybe I’ve got it all wrong! GAH! DON’T LISTEN TO ME!

  4. Megan says:

    Ugh. I really wanted to see this movie, but now I’m scared the damn grain is going to be too distracting.

    I hate when a crappy movie has wonderful performances. It’s just not right.

    • Dave2 says:

      Ha! 🙂 Well, admittedly, I’m probably over-sensitive to film grain since I am accustomed to analyzing films on DVD and Blu-Ray by how clear the picture is. No doubt some people felt it enhanced the tension in the story (or something like that) so you may actually enjoy it!

  5. Sybil Law says:

    How disappointing! It looked like a decent film, but I hate over-the-top shizz, too.
    Requiem for a Dream was easily one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen.

  6. martymankins says:

    I’m sure I will see this movie for at least the Oscar buzz that surrounds it. I’m no fan of the grainy film either nor am I a ballet fan.

    Your paragraph on the segment reminds me of a scene from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive where Naomi Watts and Laura Harring’s characters get lesbo busy, but then soon after, you are left wondering if it really happened or if it was a dream. While I don’t mind figuring out those kinds of questioning plot details, it gets to be a bit much if it doesn’t help further the overall feel of the movie.

  7. Andy says:

    Sort of on/off topic – they announced that Natalie Portman was pregnant the other day and the newscaster helpfully informed us the baby would be due next year. Well duh!

  8. Best review ever. Before reading this I had absolutely no desire to see the movie whatsoever. Now I *really* have no desire to see it. So thanks mate.

  9. Perfect review. I saw it last night and except for not noticing the film grain so much, I agree with every word.

    It was an *interesting* watch and I can say that I no longer hate Natalie Portman. It was, I think, worth seeing, and as a slasher-ballet film, it worked best. No need to think about it too hard beyond the pretty colors. Some of the script was pulled right from a stock Disney film.

  10. Sarah says:

    I liked Black Swan. But then I like ballet and usually anything Natalie Portman is in. But I wasn’t crazy into it and all “it’s SO AMAZING and artful and blah blah.”

  11. goblinbox says:

    +1 for the phrase “abusive grain” LOL!

  12. ssp says:

    I like grain 🙂

    I just tend to be annoyed when people use fake grain (like the digital mess on the screenshot you show). If they want grain, they should use high ISO film to get the real deal.

    Just my snobby 2 cents.

    And a happy new year!

    • Dave2 says:

      As I said, I like grain too! (I still shoot film from time to time!)… but here it was more of an art-house cinema gimmick more than anything else. Like the way that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez purposely added “age and damage” effects to Grindhouse to make it look old. I actually LIKED it in that context, because it was a part of the experience instead of a distraction.

      But you bring up a very good point about adding “fake” grain to a photo.

      For the image I used in this blog entry, I purposefully made the grain look “fake” and highly exaggerated so people would know that it was me who had done it, and I wasn’t trying to worsen the image to try and trick people.

      However… I do have a bunch of expensive grain plugins for Photoshop where I could have made a very convincing image if I had wanted to. I bought the plugins, because I often do photo restoration or manipulation of older images which were shot on film. In order for my work to be convincing, I have to be able to match the look of the original scanned image.

      All that being said, I sometimes add grain to a clear digital image for artistic effect (lugging around a film camera with all the other stuff I carry is not always easy!). Especially when I think it helps tell the story I am trying to express, but not when it will distract from the message I am wanting to communicate. It’s a fine line, and I think Black Swan crosses it unrealistically.

      • ssp says:

        I heard about such plug-ins for grain, but never needed them. I keep thinking that they aren’t that convincing because I can’t remember seeing grain in digital images which didn’t look fake. Care to share some examples?

  13. sizzle says:

    I’m sitting here trying to remember the grain. I guess I overlooked it. I appreciate your assessment of the movie and agree that the characters were what gave it its clout- some really stand out performances. I suppose he could have been less heavy-handed and we could have walked out of there wondering not knowing. That definitely could have made it more interesting. Overall, I liked it more than I thought I would.

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