Black Swan (2010) Directed by Darren Aronofsky
I'm vegetarian, I have been for many years. But If I wasn't, I really feel as though Christmas came early this year and I had my fill of turkey courtesy of Black Swan. It's increasingly apparent that Aronofsky has powerful friends in Hollywood (especially amongst the critical fraternity). This can be the only reason I can think of why so many people rated Black Swan. It's the reason why I picked it up off the shelf and bought the DVD. Word on this movie has been euphoric. Masterpiece, suspenseful, Oscar winning performances, directing genius. Someone left out the word TURKEY. They also left out the word misogynist.
If one was being kind, you could look at Black Swan as a commentary on various compulsive disorders, the kind that tend to be more often than not associated with women – anorexia, bulimia, bodily self-abuse etc. Aronofsky shows us these conditions through Natalie Portman's anxious, nervy protagonist – budding ballerina star Nina Sayers. But show is all he does, there is never a discussion as to why Nina is suffering from these conditions and ultimately these ailments are merely reduced to plot device. Even bigger problems arise with Aronofsky's attempt to deal with Nina's unraveling mind, heightened paranoia and split personality. Doppelgängers start to appear, Nina seeing her own dark nemesis everywhere, mirroring her own failure to master the Black Swan segment of Swan Lake she has been chosen to star in. Aronosfsky's gift to Black Swan and Nina is Vincent Cassel (playing Thomas) who is her coach and artistic director. His advice for Nina to connect with her dark side is to have sex with him and masturbate. Sensitive soul that Thomas is, his casual, clichéd sexism is never challenged by Aronosfsky. It's easy to wonder if Aronofsky is indulging his own wank fantasies here, especially in a completely unnecessary lesbian scene between Portman and her real life (not imaginary – keep up!) rival played by Mila Kunis. Vertigo this ain't.
Amongst all this sexual deviant activity and the weak b-movie horror shapes, we have poor Natalie Portman, giving her all. She does look traumatized throughout, and her performance is excellent. She captures the requisite obsessiveness of a high strung ballett perfectionist. Her Nina is often hard to watch, more than uncomfortable. Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder are both wasted in underdeveloped roles. Everyone tries their best, but Aronofsky treats the Black Swan with disdain, you often wonder if he is taking this seriously (and should we? Is that the point?) His answer to Nina's predicament (SPOILER ALERT!) is simply along the lines of "this crazy mixed up bitch must die!" There is something vacuous about the whole affair, Black Swan is often reduced to the level of TV teen drama. Nothing wrong with that per se, but as with Requiem For A Dream and most of The Wrestler, Aronofsky seems out of his depth with the subject matter he's chosen to cover. As for suspense, there was no thrill here. I felt embarrassed for everyone.
I decided against watching Black Swan when it came out and got all the rave reviews. I read about the making of the film, saw interviews with the exhausted Natalie Portman and combined the information with my dislike of Aronofsky's Requiem for A Dream. Not for me. Yet, when Nick came home from London with the film, I was compelled to see just what was so torturous about it. Ballerinas criticized Black Swan for the 'bad' dancing – I dislike its stylized (and vacuous) treatment of mental illness. There's nothing wrong with depicting the manyfold situations and aspects that relate to becoming mentally unstable, but there is a problem when you combine this depiction unreasonably with horror and sexualization of the victim's position.
To put it shortly, Aronofsky as the film maker and the ultimate Eye watching over his film, turns into a mixture of Kubrik (in Eyes Wide Shut) and Von Trier (with Breaking The Waves for example) with Black Swan. Maybe he would take the comparison as a compliment, but to me the two directors have systematically used questionable methods and ended up with dubious portrayals of women. The worst of all is that Aronofsky's leading lady dies onstage after her hallucinations become so serious she wounds herself to death. Here we have the now classic treatment of a woman protagonist with a dilemma relating to mental health: she must die. Then at least she becomes the lost princess, the tragic beauty forever entombed as young and sexually available, yet distant being. Is that somehow romantic still in 2012?
Luckily, Natalie Portman was able to have a child after making the movie. And didn't she meet her husband on the set?