dir: Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky returns to the well that prompted him to make Pi way back in the day, with a different gender in the lead but the same ultimate problem: madness brought on by sexual frustration. In Pi a maths genius can’t get any, and goes mad (or madder) listening to his hot Indian neighbour have sex. In Black Swan, a sexually- repressed prima ballerina called Nina (Natalie Portman) has to go mad in order to access her dark side to become the most perfect ballerina in the history of Swan Lake performances.
With mixed results. In a way, though she’s won’t and shouldn’t get credit for it, Portman did a Christian Bale and starved herself down in order to play this character. She’s already tiny, but here she’s depleted enough here to have that horrible strained look on her sternum where flesh is supposed to be, and now there’s only bone and tendon.
It’s not for me to judge what actors do in the pursuit of money, critical respect and the adulation of the masses. If it’s okay for Bale to do it in every second flick he does, then why not a chick that probably already weighs about 40 kilos anyway?
Yes, yes, women’s issues with body image, yes, yes, negative media images contributing to pressures on actresses specifically and women in general.
Whatever. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that it’s pointless to single that out when a) she’s playing a ballerina, a group of waifs who take body modification to an extreme as a rule, what with the footbinding and the vomiting and such, and b) it’s not like it’s represented as a positive career choice.
I mean, these ballerinas are bitches, aren’t they? Backbiting, backstabbing, vain and hysterical trollops; who would want to spend any time with them or near them? They live and die in hope of prancing about in front of a bunch of people so wealthy they can throw their money away to watch people mince and carry-on in the most enervating manner possible. It’s Death that comes a few steps closer to you whenever you watch this pretentious twaddle, tempting you ever closer with the promise of oblivion and the promise of never having to watch this foofy frippery ever again.
The previous prima ballerina (Winona Ryder still has an acting career!) has been cast aside from a particular ballet company, making way for someone else to step into her blood-encrusted shoes. The director, Thomas (Vincent Cassell), likes his primas young, and is tired of Winona Ryder, and who can blame him. So now it’s Nina’s turn. But the thing is, completely playing against type as a sleazy Frenchmen, Thomas is concerned that Nina might not be up to the demands of the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake.
For, you see, not only must the lead in Swan Lake play both the White and the Black Swans in the same ballet, but she also has to apparently answer very uncomfortable questions about her sexual history when asked by her boss, who also recommends that she masturbate in order to get in touch with herself for the role.
Who knew, eh? Apparently all it takes is a bit of Do-It-Yourself, and you can climb to the top of the balletic heap.
On-the-job sexual harassment is the least of Nina the Ballerina’s problems, though. She also has the stage mother from hell (Barbara Hershey), who infantilises the daughter and strictly oversees every aspect of her life. Though at first they seem completely in synch with the expectations of Nina’s goals, we realise over time, like when Nina tries to masturbate and only too-late realises that her mother is in the room, that the parental concern and love has veered completely over the edge into malignant, oppressive control.
As Nina struggles more and more with her dual role (not in a technical sense, since her dancing is apparently flawless), she also starts struggling with reality, as she starts glimpsing shadow versions of herself everywhere, especially in reflective surfaces or whenever she sees a particular other dancer called Lily (Mila Kunis).
Speaking of over the edge, even though this is recognisably a Darren Aronofsky film, as in, a flick that looks like it was endlessly fussed over, with a cool distance between audience and screen, it actually ends up feeling like more of a Brian DePalma film.
Why? Well, it’s so lurid. I’m no prude by any stretch of the imagination, but for something being held up as Oscar-bait, it’s pretty fucking trashy. The sexual and artistic difference represented between the two girls, one being uptight, insecure but technically competent, and the other being sloppy but passionately hot, can only, in a trashy flick of this nature, be resolved in a certain way.
And that’s where it becomes hard to take this film seriously as a Serious Film with Serious Themes. It’s such a retread anyway of a trope or character dynamic so ancient that I can’t even mention recent flicks of the last ten years that it is similar to, because that would spoil a fairly crucial aspect of the flick. But let’s just say that the White Swan representing purity and virtue, and the Black Swan representing passion and sexual aggression is an idea so old they even named two gods after that duality: Apollonian versus Dionysian, much to the chagrin of Frederich "I'm scared of women and Jews" Nietzche.
And you can think of thousands of other dualities as well common to film and literature, all that ultimately come down to either the conscious mind versus the subconscious, id versus ego, virgin versus whore, the list goes on.
Ultimately, what I’m saying is this: in a classy flick, the representation of this ‘conflict’ between Nina and Lily, between White and Black Swan, is through some complex allegory, some kind of encompassing or more subtle symbolism, or some nuanced narrative. In a trashy flick, it results in hot girl-on-girl action.
Guess which way this one goes…
I’m not complaining at all about the sight of Natalie Portman masturbating or Mila Kunis giving head to a very receptive Portman, to the mutual satisfaction of both parties and a large section of the audience. At all. Not complaining. At All.
Where was I… oh yes, but the problem is that in combination with some other moments, and some other images that pop up in the flick as Nina goes somewhat bugfuckingly manic, is that in the wash up, it becomes a bit unintentionally funny.
I say unintentionally thought I can’t really know for sure. It’s just that there are some scenes, especially towards the end which made me laugh at moments where I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted us to laugh.
The trashiness might be pure Brian DePalma, but some of the body horror that ensues is Cronenbergian at the very least (the body transformation stuff especially). When the other characters in the film talk about the need for Nina to make her transformation into the Black Swan (through sex, or unleashing her dark side, or through violence), it ends up taking that path literally in representation (visually literal though I guess still symbolically), and I’m not sure that was the best course of action.
Portman has received a lot of critical acclaim for her performance, and I’m not really going to dispute it that much. The thing is though, what it amounts to is her acting like an emotionally weak and repressed waif for most of the flick in between momentary flashes, before becoming a powerhouse of dark energy. It works, and she might even win at the Oscars, though I suspect it’ll be more for the ‘brave’ lengths she went to starving herself down and training for the role. Mila Kunis doesn’t need to do as much, because all she needs is a slutty smile and a mocking laugh to inhabit the little the character is required to inhabit, but she does okay. Above all, like all Aronofsky flicks, it's so controlled and fussed over that the performances almost, almost become superfluous. But, like with his last flick The Wrestler, a lot of the flick is filmed over-the-shoulder shots of the protagonist, and she’s in nearly every scene, so the entire structure and meaning of the flick is entirely upon her bony shoulders.
I enjoyed it well enough, and despite or maybe because of the almost Showgirls level of trashy luridness pretending to be weighty significance, even as I wanted to mock it, I still thought it was interesting enough, and that the ending was handled very well.
There are still a bunch of scenes so fucking outrageous (especially the ones involving Winona Ryder’s character in a hospital) ignoring the regular sexual ones that makes this an overblown, blousy affair. It’s kind of like watching a gum-chewing, implanted stripper playing Hedda Gabler with an Oxford/Tasmanian accent: even if she imbues the dialogue with pathos and nuance, all you can think of is when the appropriate time will be to reward her performance by slipping money into her g-string.
7 times Mila Kunis’s name sounds like a very pleasurable sexual euphemism already out of 10
“The only person standing in your way is you.” – and if we can get rid of her, you’ll be perfect – Black Swan