Posted on December 28th, 2010
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 (
Sooooo... tonight was the night...
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).
The reason we know this is because THEY BEAT YOU OVER THE HEAD WITH IT OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN!
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.