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Black Swan (2010)

Melo Out

You practically need noise-cancelling headphones to drown out the Oscar buzz surrounding Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.  The Rotten Tomatoes summary, supported by eighty-six percent of its critics at the time of this writing, describes the film as “Bracingly intense, passionate, and wildly melodramatic, Black Swan glides on Darren Aronofsky's bold direction—and a bravura performance from Natalie Portman.”  This is as instructive as it is baffling, because I’m sure a good number of these writers have watched movies in the last twenty years.

Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a New York ballerina who lands the role of The Swan Queen in renowned French director Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) production of Swan Lake.  Thomas knows that Nina is a gifted technical dancer, but he doubts she has the passion to open up and sell the emotion of the performance.  Into their studio walks Lily (Mila Kunis), a free-spirited dancer from San Francisco, who Nina immediately pegs as a threat to her standing as top bird in the show.

Despite what you may think, the film’s trajectory isn’t as predictable as the setup.  There’s no crazy love triangle or wacky misunderstanding; Black Swan is the story of Nina’s spiral into madness, and the way Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin choose to show this, you may leave the theatre wishing they’d gone a more traditional route.

The problem here is that we’re never given Nina’s mental Square One, so it’s not clear how steep her descent is.  Much like Aronofsky’s previous film, The Wrestler, Black Swan gives its characters zero backstory—no handle to latch on to as we plop into their lives for two hours.  Nina lives with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), who paints creepy portraits of her.  Mom was once a dancer who gave everything up to have Nina, but we’re never shown what that meant to her.  Did she push Nina into dancing?  What of Nina’s father (dead or deadbeat)?  These may seem like nit-picks, but the two questions an audience member should ask when faced with following the exploits of a psychotic ballerina are, “Why is she crazy?” and, “Why should I care?”

Instead of penning the four lines of dialogue needed to put skeptics’ minds at ease, the three (!) screenwriters focus on amping up the movie’s alleged sexual tension.  Thomas makes advances at Nina, first instructing her to go home and touch herself after dance practice, and then shoving his hand up her crotch while kissing her deeply.  Then there’s the much-talked-about love scene between Nina and Lily; and while it’s more graphic than a lot of sex in cinema these days, it’s nothing that Sharon Stone didn’t do to Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct eighteen years ago (the writers know how to get free Internet porn, right?).

This brings me back to my opening statement about movies from the past two decades.  If you’ve seen enough of them and are half-awake during Black Swan, there’s a fun game you can play that’ll keep your mind afloat during the numerous poorly shot ballet sequences.  It’s called, “How Old is This Technique?”  I got a bunch of them down, but feel free to add to the following list of decades-old clichés in this sure-to-be-nominated “masterpiece” (The first item pre-dates the 90s, but it’s the most obvious place to start):

  • Socially awkward girl hated by her peers, living sheltered life with crazy mother (Carrie, 1976)
  • Spooky girl’s face morphing into another girl’s face (What Lies Beneath, 2000)
  • “Hot”, “Shocking” lesbian make-out scene (Basic Instinct, 1992)
  • Extended “Is this all in their head” out-of-control fantasy sequence (American Psycho, 2000)
  • Character who may or may not be figment of main character’s imagination (Fight Club, 1999)
  • Parent shows up at the end to watch child perform big stage number (too many to list, probably as old as the sports/performing arts movie)
  • Evil mirror image turning to look at person staring at the mirror (too many to list, 1990s—at the latest)

Of that list, the horror clichés and alternate-identity thing bug me the most.  Make no mistake, Black Swan is a horror movie—it’s just been packaged as a pretentious European art film for people too unhip to realize they’re being fooled.  How else to explain the fast-moving shadowy figures in the foreground accompanied by a loud, scary “Whoosh!”; or the POV camera whipping around a dark room only to center on a creepy figure Nina didn’t realize was standing there all along (accompanied by a loud, scary “Crash!”); or Nina returning some items that she stole from a catatonic ballerina who’d been in a car accident—no points for guessing that the not-really-unconscious patient will grab Nina’s wrist in the hand-model close-up (or that the grab will be heralded by a loud, seat-jarring sting).  There’s also the whole Transformation sub-plot, where Nina believes she’s metamorphosing into an actual black swan; it’s edgy and gripping stuff, I’m sure, for non-horror fans; but I’ve seen David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly, which is more than a quarter-century old.

I’ll give the filmmakers a little credit on Nina’s psychosis manifesting an alternate version of Lily.  At first, I thought Aronofsky and Co. had gone full Fight Club, but it turns out  Nina was just imagining a crazy, hot version of the actual Lily the whole time (I can’t decide if that makes their wild muff-diving scene more erotic or just plain stupid).  The problem, as with much of the rest of Black Swan, lies in the execution.  Once you introduce a mind-projection character and make the audience aware of it, the rest of the movie becomes an exercise in wool-pulling instead telling a great story.  This film is particularly egregious in its constant back-and-forth, “She’s real/she’s not real/she’s real/she’s not real” manipulations; after awhile, this trick negates the meaning of either scenario because the audience has tuned out.

Okay, so I’m not a fan of the plot or execution.  What about Natalie Portman’s “bravura performance”?  If she gets the Academy nod for this role, I’ll just have to write it off as 2010 being a shit year for movies.  That’s not to say there haven’t been some great performances, but to place Portman’s on a pedestal as Truly Great American Acting does a disservice to all past winners.  She’s serviceable here, which is to say that she cries and pouts and schemes and dances just as any actress would in order to pull off this part.  What, was Aronofsky going to hire a community college drama teacher to play Nina Sayers?  No, and Portman has already proven herself a fine dramatic actress; perhaps if the screenplay had called on her to be a flesh-and-blood character, she may have had room to surprise us.  But it didn’t and she doesn't.

It’s a shame, too, because much has been made of her years of ballet training and how they prepared her for this great role; I just wish I could have seen more of that on the screen instead of the frustratingly close camerawork that Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique choose to employ.  It’s like watching the Gladiator with tutus; the shots either violate too much personal space or feel like the cheap seats in a grand theatre, giving the movie a decidedly low-budget feel—as if Aronofsky were a scrappy young filmmaker who couldn’t afford awesome dancers.  And I was on the verge of slitting my own wrists during the sixth shot where we follow Portman around New York with the hand-held camera focused on the back of her neck.

I’m prepared for the criticisms of my criticism.  Darren Aronofsky has so much cache as a “visionary” filmmaker now that even his most inaccessible works will be hailed as high art.  In my opinion, he peaked a decade ago with Requiem for a Dream—his tightest, most visually compelling, well-performed movie to date.  He’s on this troubling Oscar-bait binge now, churning out films that cry out for attention without delivering the goods, and it makes me sad.  He had a chance to make the cut-throat world of ballet interesting to non-performing-arts enthusiasts like me, and the best he could come up with was a plodding confirmation of the cliché that ballet is just boring snobs dancing to elevator music.

It’s interesting that I’ve heard Black Swan defended as being a melodrama.  Defended!  To me that sounds an awful lot like studio publicity spinning an unsuccessful drama into a high-minded tour de force.  The definition of melodrama, by the way, is “a dramatic form that does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization.”  I don’t often hear good movies praised for their lack of coherence and characterization; by that metric, you could describe Black Swan as a sister film to Showgirls and not raise an eyebrow.  While that’s great for putting together a Rocky Horror-style midnight double feature, it’s a lousy way to judge excellence in cinema.

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