Black Swan

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January 13, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

I have to admit, I’ve fallen a bit behind the cinema of Darren Aronofsky. Beyond his first two features, the pseudo-mathematical thriller Pi and the drug addiction drama Requiem for a Dream, I’m unfamiliar with where he went and what he did next. I should probably rectify this as I find myself one of the few who defends those films as fairly decent stylistic exercises. Particularly the latter which, while certainly superficial, still succeeds quite capably within those parameters. The word for The Wrestler, at least among critics, was positive but the buzz generated by Black Swan seems to have surpassed all the director’s previous achievements. Hailed by some as an art-house tour-de-force and by others as a superbly weird film the truth is unfortunately something entirely less interesting. If only this was weird. If only it was a tour-de-force. If only, like Requiem for a Dream, it proved to at least be an interesting failure.

Dispensing with the storyline, Aronofsky has framed the story of Swan Lake into a play-within-a-play structure. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina and a perfectionist who has not yet managed to snag a leading role within her troupe. She lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer who ended her career to have her child and who now represents something of a stifling force; overly protective and pinning all of her own dreams onto her daughter. When Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the troupe leader, announces that he will be opening the new season with a stripped down reworking of Swan Lake the race is on for the main role, that of the Swan Queen. Nina wants it but, as Leroy acknowledges, while her technique is perfect and she certainly captures the virginal grace of the White Swan, how can she play the seductress, the conniving and sexual Black Swan? Sensing something in her resistance to his advances, Leroy hands her the main role; snubbing the company’s former star (Winona Ryder, in a small role) who is effectively forced to retire. Now all Nina has to do is keep the role despite the competition from within, including the sexually liberated Lily (Mila Kunis), the company’s newest addition and seemingly the embodiment of the Black Swan replete with a tattoo of wings upon her back. Nina certainly has the talent but does she have the ability to lose herself in the role, to surprise her self and thus surprise the audience? Whatever the case things seem amiss as hallucinations, injuries and treachery seem afoot for the dancer.

Just since the comparison seems inevitable there are two films which feature narratives contingent on ballet that pretty much define the form in cinema. First off we have Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell’s sumptuous fairytale The Red Shoes and secondly, and admittedly less rooted in the dance-style, we have Italian horror impresario Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Black Swan is certainly more in league with the latter but it unfortunately falls far short of both. Perhaps the problem is that, like Suspiria, the film itself has very little to do with ballet as an art form but, unlike Argento’s film, Aronofsky still holds to the art form for structural support. Most assuredly Black Swan is a film for people who are not familiar with ballet. That’s certainly no sin but it manifests in an exceedingly clunky formal structure that digs away at the film’s dramatic foundations right from the outset. For example, Cassel’s introduction to the film has him confront the entire company and, in an extended monologue, recount the entirety of the story of Swan Lake to them as if it might have escaped a cast of people who have devoted their lives to ballet.

Meanwhile Portman and Kunis, slim and elegant, serve as apt casting from a physical perspective but they’re not performance-grade dancers. This means the film can put no stock in its own dance sequences which ideally serve as the heart of the entire exercise. Instead we get awkward compositions that usually shoot the women from the waist up and then intercut to the feet of others while the camera circles the actresses to try and impart the kineticism they can’t generate themselves. It doesn’t require much of an aesthete to imagine just how unsatisfying that is.

Aronofsky’s visual choices throughout frequently baffle with an inordinate amount of the film using close-ups, aligning faces to the left or right-hand side of the screen. It’s a legitimate tactic but, in a film that centres on dance, the face is surely not what demands the focus. Also gaining an unusual amount of representation are hand-held shots that follow, usually in medium shot, the primary actors. For its 108 minute duration I don’t think I could have asked for more bounding footage of the back of Miss Portman’s head. Escaping from these formal elements the real misfortune is how entirely rote the film’s psychological elements are.

The truth is, despite the film’s star power and seemingly unusual premise, what we have here is really just a poorly judged, B-grade psychological thriller. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Aronofsky finds himself drawn in this direction. Aside from the claustrophobic fervour of his debut feature Pi, I seem to recall that he purchased the remake rights to the late Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, a psycho-sexual tale of a Japanese pop-star’s identity fracturing due to the disparity between her own career aspirations and the perceptions of her hardcore fans, so he could re-create one of the film’s scenes in Requiem for a Dream1. Thankfully a full remake never came to light, at least not from the US, but the storylines of the films certainly share a lot of overlap.

Perhaps the biggest shame of it all is that Portman really does seem to be giving her all to the part. Although you might disagree, her best role came at the tender age of eleven when she teamed up with Luc Besson and Jean Reno for the rather atypical action film, Léon2. Even if that seemed her most satisfying role there could be little doubt of her talent as her career continued. Unfortunately she seems to have a habit of appearing in films that don’t merit actresses. Honestly, George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels don’t even merit viewers. Still her presence here feels a little like Meryl Streep’s3 characteristically assured turn in Alan J. Pakula’s cinematic adaptation of Sophie’s Choice. Saying nothing about the book, Pakula’s adaptation was a remarkable exercise in missing the point and yet Streep came out pristine. Likewise Portman’s portrayal of Nina is impressively detailed even as the film that surrounds and develops it cannot hope to match her efforts. In smaller and often more cartoonish roles, the likes of Cassel, Hershey, and Kunis have much easier jobs and manage comfortably.

There’s simply too much wrong with Black Swan to offer it much leeway. Were it not for the presence of recognisable names the film itself holds all the intrigue and surprise of a generic, direct-to-DVD title. That’s surely the biggest surprise of all; that where Aronofsky’s shortcomings and misjudgments usually draw questions of its critics this time around the result is simply too generic to merit examination4. The notion of tortured artists and of actors becoming trapped within the machinations of their performance are well worn and there’s still plenty of potential for intrigue in that fatalistic viewpoint but Aronofsky’s vision of malevolent reflections, suspicious rashes and recurring cuticle damage hardly inspire confidence. For the particularly squeamish perhaps one or two scenes might ask them to avert their eyes but as a literalisation of an artist’s self-destructive pursuit for perfection it’s all sadly ho-hum. Certainly a world away from the magnificence of Cocteau’s grand declaration in Orphée that artists must effectively fall in love with death itself (or a vision thereof). With the first hour and a half we’re treated largely to tedium but as the film tries to raise the ante, moving into the grand finale, it instead hurls itself headlong off the precipice into absurdity.

It’s not surprising really. The awkward ballet, the dimly developed supporting cast, and the trite imaginings of inner turmoil never really afford the film any footing for serious dramatic payoff. Nina is hardly a sympathetic character nor is the internal fairytale drama of the Swan Lake story convincingly paralleled in Aronofsky’s script. She’s just another shrew trapped in a boring film and, unlike something like Polanski’s Repulsion, which gave a truly full-blooded account of the irresistible tug of madness, this just seems too neat and tidy to ever convince. Speaking of absurd, guided by the central idea of the White and Black Swan – flipsides of woman, virgin and seductress – Aronofsky eventually decides to give full body to the avian in a series of ill-advised, frankly laughable, set-pieces that combine poor theory with equally unimpressive computer imagery. With the emergence of the Black Swan and Nina’s terror of it, the film would have been equally well served by throwing in a cameo for Daffy Duck as the villainous embodiment of her tortured soul. It could hardly seem any more out of place.

As the film reaches its climax the ‘did she, didn’t she?’ rhetoric that shaped the preceding hundred or so minutes reveals itself to be entirely hollow. After all, discerning what the dancer did and what she merely imagined wouldn’t make the experience any more interesting or informative. That’s pretty damning when you consider that part of the narrative involves a lesbian tête-à-tête between Portman and Kunis. Truth be told there’s nothing worth indulging in here. Neither sight nor sound nor spectacle is to be had in this tedious exercise. One might have thought a talent the likes of Tchaikovsky would have known better than to allow his name to be attached to it.

1 For the record, the scene in question features a fully submerged Jennifer Connolly issuing a muffled cry of anguish into the surrounding bathwater.

2 Released as The Professional in the United States and heavily cut, not for violence, but because test audiences apparently misinterpreted the developing relationship between Portman and Reno as paedophilic. Besson claims the film is about ‘pure love’ and certainly his argument makes a lot more sense than the frankly ludicrous assessment that the film supports paedophilia. The film remained uncut in Besson’s native France but most of the rest of the world came to know the edited version. A few years back the full, and certainly superior, cut of the film finally emerged on DVD for English speaking audiences in the US.

3 In a serendipitous turn IMDb’s trivia page for the film reveals that Streep was apparently considered for the role of Nina’s mother.

4 Well, admittedly this isn’t quite true. Slate manage a fine piece about the (potential) subversion of ‘camp’ which Aronofsky (inadvertently?) employs. It’s not a critique I can buy into too much given that the film, in terms of incident and atmosphere, is surely far too banal to qualify but I applaud their effort…

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