“The Black Swan”

Paleo Retiree writes:


I was amazed how uninspiring I found this 2010 ballet-world-set psychological horror film. Natalie Portman plays a super-perfectionist, frigid (but yearning for release) ballerina who’s given the lead in a new version of “Swan Lake.” The movie is devoted to trying to get you to experience things as Portman’s character does, so you’re always very, very close to her — following her onto the stages and into the rehearsal rooms of Lincoln Center; tracking her as she hurries down the sidewalks and through the corridors of the Upper West Side; inspecting the scrunched-up muscles in her forehead; sharing her shallow breathing; dodging or getting fascinated by mirrors; scrambling fantasies, fears and reality … The script gives her a frustrated, pushy mother (Barbara Hershey), an earthy rival at the dance company (Mila Kunis), and an is-he-being-sexual-or-not? choreographer boss (Vincent Cassel).

Director Darren Aronofsky (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream”) has a taste for both high culture and dramatic intensity that I can enjoy, and he’s clearly a smart, thinking guy — “The Black Swan” is full of film and lit references, doubles and strategies. The film delivers some overwrought, fruity, near-camp moments that are transporting and fun in the shamelessly-flamboyant mode; Portman is as lovely as can be; the glimpses of Manhattan’s Upper West Side cultural life are accurate and interesting; Barbara Hershey swings for the fences as the scary mom; and Kunis and Cassel both show off interesting mixes of swagger and vulnerability. Credit where credit is due: the film has more than its share of artistic and entertainment daring, especially in the context of today’s movies.

But “The Black Swan” is a long way from being in the class of “Repulsion,” “Carrie” or “The Red Shoes,” a few of its more obvious inspirations. Props to everyone involved for a lot of commitment, but (for my tastes, anyway) the script is lacking in slyness and wit; the direction is ‘way too pushily “immediate” (half the movie consists of handheld shots over the shoulder of Natalie Portman as she walks anxiously around); and I found Portman’s performance tiresomely one-note. She plays her good-girl character’s gaunt, keyed-up inner anxiety and almost nothing but. A few fleeting moments of relaxation and sensuality that the character experiences — Portman does these moments well — came as a HUGE favor to this particular audience member. All that said, I’m still wondering why I couldn’t object to Catherine Deneuve’s performance in Polanski’s “Repulsion” on the same basis. Like “The Black Swan,” “Repulsion” sets out to convey the subjective experience of a terrified, deteriorating personality, and like Portman, Deneuve was a beautiful but limited actress. Yet I’m happy agreeing with the general film-buff consensus that “Repulsion” is a classic and Deneuve’s performance in it is iconic. Hmmmm … Well, maybe my objections to “The Black Swan” boil down to the film’s up-to-date visual language. Maybe I’m just an out-of-it old fogey who couldn’t find the film’s groove, and maybe “The Black Swan” really deserves to be praised as “Repulsion” for the reality-TV set.

Short version: Nice try, but when the film wasn’t being monotonous it was being annoyingly frantic and strident. Among Aronofsky’s films, “The Black Swan” is more akin to “The Wrestler” (which I also found dreary) than to the super-stylized and exciting (if grueling) “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream.” My wife had a hard time staying awake thru the movie, and it took us three evenings to finish watching it.


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Movies and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to “The Black Swan”

  1. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Been forever since I’ve seen REPULSION, but I think Polanski is the rare director who succeeds in making sadism seem fascinating and almost funny. I think it’s because, at heart, he’s a comedy director and a satirist. Not sure how this applies to REPULSION — been too long for me to make a meaningful comment — but I recall being amused and mildly titillated by the perversity of china-doll Denueve being slowly broken down. I like later Polanski more because the horror stuff is more effectively balanced against comic material. I find THE TENANT and BITTER MOON to be hilarious. Aronofsky, on the other hand….I’m not sure what his aims are as an artist, but it sure ain’t satire and it sure ain’t funniness. Maybe he’s perverse, but if so it’s a perversity of a very studious, sweat-on-the-brow kind — i.e. a perversity that Bunuel wouldn’t recognize. The ballerina in the movie is probably the perfect role for Portman, who has always suggested an Ivy student pretending to be an actress. Watching her in the movie is like watching some over-achiever cram for finals, train for a marathon, or struggle to maintain her diet. There is nothing beneath the striving and the intentness, not even a sweetness that might be taken for a willingness to please or entertain. Oh, look, she’s trying real hard. Who cares?

    Maybe Portman and Aronofsky are workaholic strivers, and the movie means something to people who are like minded?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean, and I played with similar ideas as I was watching “The Black Swan.” Polanski is more genuinely sadistic, and there’s a sumptuousness and lusciousness in the relish he takes in tracking the breakdown of people. And he isn’t afraid of the grotesque. It’s fun getting in arguments with people who don’t seem to see how funny his movies can be. (And there’s always a question how funny he intends them to be, and even if so, which moments are meant to be funny and which aren’t.) Aronofsky seems more purely devoted to … intensity or something. Like you, I don’t really know what. He seemed like a much more interesting filmmaker, as well as a much sexier one, when he first emerged than he’s looking like now.


      • Not a fan, Aronofsky has always seemed like he was powerfully driven by winds of emptiness. Like he has a strong need to say things but that’s it. And, really, it’s all just style driven. The Fountain was embarassing

        Liked by 1 person

    • JV says:

      Great description of Black Swan and Portman’ acting in it. I’m not a fan of Aronofsky at all. He’s humorless and hits audiences over the head with his portentous and shallow musings on…not sure what exactly. He does have some interesting visual moments. And goddamnit, he married the divine Rachel Weisz, but that’s about all he has going for him as a filmmaker.


  2. Jeff R. says:

    Aronofsky keeps making the same movie over and over. He’s like a high-brow M. Night Shayamalan with this stuff. A character with some personal problems develops a destructive obsession/addiction, some trippy stuff happens, and then at the end you walk away thinking “yeah, I sure am glad I haven’t developed an all-consuming passion to mathematically model the movements of the stock market/lose weight so I look good on tv/do a crapload of heroin/cure my dying wife’s cancer/be a kick ass ballerina. In general, it would seem that all-consuming passions are to be avoided.”

    There you go. With the exception of The Wrestler, you’ve now seen every movie Darren Aronofsky’s ever made.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Despite being one of the world’s bigger Rachel Weisz fans, I could only make it about 15 minutes into “The Fountain.”


  4. agnostic says:

    Aronofsky is a cerebral rather than corporeal type, meaning he should take a stab at a geeky verbal genre, say sci-fi paperbacks, and stop trying to work with images and sounds.

    A crucial part of being a nerd is that he has no sense of rhythm, which is tied to muscle movement instead of neuron flickering.

    He doesn’t know how to just let a mood or feeling develop, go through some unforced, natural modulations, and wind down after running its course. Every sequence of actions is frenetic, disjointed, sped-up then slowed-down, the intended flow of things being constantly sidetracked and interrupted until the director teleports the viewer artificially to the “denouement”.

    Earth to nerd: the human body doesn’t work that way, only the scatterbrained “wow, look at that! and that! and that!” reactions of a small child’s mind, for whom every event is a surprising novelty. Sequences of muscle movements, whether fine or gross, take awhile to get warmed up, and once they’re running, they tend to stay running until the goal is reached, maybe weaving around this or that obstacle in their path. The result is sensual rather than shocking.

    Therein lies a great irony: these pseudo-philosophical directors like Aronofsky or the Wachowski brothers have pretensions of maturity — wowie zowie, dude, these concepts will blow your underdeveloped mind! But back on planet Earth, any bunch of glue-sniffing eighth-graders can wax philosophical while staring up at the clouds.

    True maturity is reached by becoming comfortable in one’s body, developing coordination and strength, and interacting effortlessly with the bodies of others — playing a team sport, dancing, or making love. Lack of rhythm and physical awkwardness suggest immaturity, a gawky teenager who still trips over himself while climbing stairs.

    Aronofsky’s geeky Peter Pannishness may have helped a movie like Pi, which focuses on a shut-in who’s obsessed with numerology. But in a movie about red-blooded adult themes such as dance, sex, and murder? The outcome is not hard to predict — a childlike protagonist whose only emotional state will be anxiety from being thrust into grown-up world, and a clumsy masturbatory girl-on-girl sub-plot that looks like it was made for high schoolers looking to rub one out before returning to the warmth of their video game cocoon.


  5. agnostic says:

    You be the judge. Nightclub dance scenes from three erotic thrillers, two from corporeal types and one from a cerebral.

    Frantic by Polanski (1988)

    Basic instinct by Verhoeven (1992)

    The Black Swan (2010)

    Which convey the danger of loss of self-control from the heady atmosphere and being entangled with another person, and feels like an awkward teenager too self-conscious to let themselves go in the first place? The intended danger posed by others is phony in a movie like The Black Swan where the protagonist is never comfortable enough to let her guard down, neutering the whole attempt at an erotic thriller.

    Lack of rhythm / corporeality also shows up in the poor choice of music by Aronofsky, some lame disjointed crap by the Chemical Brothers. I realize most club music is undanceable crap these days, but it wouldn’t stretch the imagination to hear something from the ’80s in a contempo night club — at least, no more so than a hurried make-out / muff-diving scene between two girls.

    The music in Basic Instinct is generic rave-techno, but still has a basic beat to it.

    The Grace Jones song in Frantic was actually seven years old at the movie’s release, and follows a song that’s decades older still. Normal audience members can suspend disbelief while hearing a song that isn’t the #1 chart-topper of the week.

    The lighting also reveals the divide between the corporeal and nerdy approach to cinematography. Frantic and Basic Instinct have more of a chiaroscuro style, which suggests that the setting is a tempting and potentially dangerous gateway between light and dark worlds, or between light and dark states of consciousness.

    In The Black Swan, it’s all shadowy and cloudy, which suggests more of a fading-out of consciousness. You can already hear the protagonist dismissing whatever happened because she, like, totally blacked out and doesn’t remember anything. It didn’t count if I was shit-faced drunk and/or high and/or experiencing a psychotic fugue.

    Just on a visual style level, The Black Swan is trying to duck the issue of sin, temptation, and free will — it’s all one great big haze-y black-out — which the corporeal directors are more comfortable exploring in those places on the threshold between the dark and the light.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s