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Aronofsky’s vision is too black & white… swan.

This article contains spoilers.

I was gonna see Harry Potter. I was. But my timing just wasn’t right, so I went to see Black Swan instead. Everything I had seen suggested that this was the ultimate conclusion of what began as Aronofsky’s desire to remake Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. I still believe that this film may be the one he ultimately decided to make instead of a direct remake. Several of Kon’s elements are there: the imaginary doppelganger, the obsessed mother figure, the lecherous business that calls for her to lose her innocence. But it wasn’t anywhere near as satisfying as Perfect Blue, for reasons of artistic sensibility, storytelling, and philosophy.

But before I take it apart, perhaps the best scene in the film features Natalie Portman masturbating in bed. It’s really hot. This scene should be in every movie. Never mind single frames of pornography. After the misfit boy and the kind-hearted girl sing their big song about friendship, insert a minute and a half of Natalie Portman masturbating. Then continue the movie as if nothing happened. Splice it into the middle of chase scenes in action movies. Place it after the big magical battle in the latest fantasy movie. Put it in the last third of documentary movies to spice things up.

The first problem with this movie is Darren Aronofsky’s sense of subtlety: he hasn’t got one. He always tries to intensify his scenes by adding weird sound effects: animal noises, waterphone (think The Matrix,) low-frequency audio sweeps. “We’ll make some low bass noise and make the subwoofer distort to manufacture artificial tension and excitement in this scene!” Nothing in the world makes that sound! Why are you doing that? “It makes the scene more exciting!” No, it just makes the scene more stupid. The same goes for his other attempts at superficially punched-up sound design. And the loud chords that accompany his jump scares. Oh yeah, he uses jump scares in this movie. Didn’t he get the memo ten years ago? Jump scares are stupid! They’re especially stupid when you accompany them with loud orchestra stings! Anyone can startle the audience by jumping out and saying, “Boo!” It’s a cheap trick, and it’s generally a cheap human being who uses it. You can have something suddenly appear on screen if you can find a natural way to do it, and Aronofsky’s ways were natural enough. But when you use that stupid, groan-inducing orchestra sting, you’re saying, “This scene isn’t actually effective, so I’m using a gimmick to try to fool people.” Even if the scene would be effective without the sting, the sting kills it. Wanna know how to make us feel real fear? Show us how afraid the actress is. Watch Takashi Miike’s “Box” from Three Extremes to see how powerful the fear written on an actress’s face can be.

Oh, and when Aronofsky’s not punching up scenes with sound design, he’s using freaky CGI. He gives Natalie Portman this weird skin crawl effect where goosebumps flare up across her skin. Must be some kind of bird response that would make her feathers stand on end if she had any (she gets some later in the film.) In any case, it’s goofy, it’s out-of-place, it doesn’t work. It drags the scenes down. There’s also a scene where she sprouts feathers; again, distracting, goofy, doesn’t work. There is a moment where she pulls a black feather out of her skin, which would work if it wasn’t so Cronenbergian. Then there is the ridiculous moment when, during a schizophrenic episode, her knees pop backward like a bird’s knees. At this point, I just said, in a clear voice, “Subtle.” The other people in the theater laughed. One woman even thanked me for it at the end of the movie.

The point is that Aronofsky should do less. He should back off the gimmickry. No weird sound design, no heavy-handed orchestra stings, no pointless CGI. What he needs to do is trust his story, his crew, and his actors to give the story the emotional impact that it needs.

Also, I think that he should use fewer closeups and edit less frequently. Many scenes had far more cuts than they needed. Also, he shouldn’t lay on his motifs so thick. “Look! A mirror! I’m hinting at a dual nature! Uh oh! Look how many individual mirrors make up that mirror! Something really heavy is about to go down.” “We’ll have Natalie Portman wear white! And Winona Ryder will wear black, and Mila Kunis will wear black, and the ballet instructor will wear black, and the mother will wear black!” We get it! They’re dark influences on her life! And then we’ll have her wear gray when she’s starting to change. Ok! I don’t think the story elements should be so black & white, even if you’re borrowing the motif from the central ballet, Swan Lake. The characters in the film are not as archetypal as the ones in the ballet!

Then we have some storytelling problems. My biggest complaint is with the Mother. During the rising action, we see that the Mother is obsessive, overbearing, and oppressive of Natalie Portman. And the Mother used to be a dancer before giving birth to Portman. The character has a clear parallel in Perfect Blue. But this never pays off. As we move toward the climax, the script seemingly forgets about the mother’s unhealthy obsessions and turns her into a moderately over-worried but otherwise balanced human being.

Then there is the resolution of the story. Natalie Portman dies, but not for any reason that comes naturally out of the story. She only dies because the intentional parallels to Swan Lake seem to demand it. They even have to bring in the weird plot device of having Portman accidentally stab herself with a shard of glass during a schizophrenic fit. So the resolution seems forced.

Oh, and what about the bulimia subplot? It seems like they didn’t explore that fully. Maybe important scenes relating to it got cut. But this bulimia, if it had been properly explored instead of just sort of being in there, could have been a much more satisfying reason for Portman’s death at the end of the film. No sudden schizophrenia-induced self-stabbing; instead, a death caused by the gradual damage of an eating disorder.

Then there is a problem of philosophy. I won’t give away the ending of Perfect Blue, but suffice to say, that film got the philosophy right. Black Swan got it wrong. Natalie Portman sees a doppelganger dressed in black. This is of course in her imagination. Believe me, I have no trouble with the psychological games. I’ve been over hazy, difficult-to-decipher ground a hundred times with Perfect Blue. I know that Natalie Portman scratches her shoulder blade unconsciously. I know that when the word “whore” appeared on the bathroom mirror in red lipstick, she unconsciously wrote it there herself. The problem is that Aronofsky tried to make the story mirror Swan Lake too closely. His characters simply aren’t as archetypal as the ones in the ballet, so the good/evil dichotomy feels forced. It’s like he tried to have it both ways — both Swan Lake and Perfect Blue — and it failed. What Aronofsky should have done was go with Perfect Blue‘s philosophy. Natalie Portman’s regular persona, the White Swan, and her imaginary double’s persona, the Black Swan, should represent not good and bad but the light and dark sides of human nature. Therefore, the Black Swan persona is one half of Portman’s psyche which she has disowned and buried inside her subconscious, because of various pressures around her. The Black Swan is not evil. She is not a demon who destroys Natalie Portman. She is a necessary part of Portman’s humanity. Aronofsky staged a scene in which Portman stabs her doppelganger in the chest and kills her. (It turns out later that she actually stabbed herself.) This is supposed to be the resolution of the conflict, but that’s wrong. The proper resolution is for Portman to accept the Black Swan, the doppelganger in black, as one half of herself so that she can grow beyond the incomplete state of childhood innocence and become whole.

Compliment sandwich? Well, there was some fine cinematography in this film. The dance scenes were shot very differently from any ballet I have ever seen. It is a Steadicam style that cheats space by going close and moving around the subject, so that dancing partners can come out of nowhere and just as quickly disappear into nowhere. A strange choice, but oddly effective. And the psychological puzzle work is handled well. There are effective instances of hallucination and distorted reality.

Black Swan is a flawed movie. There are parts of this movie that really do work. But there are other parts that are just stupid, goofy, and have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It falls just this side of good, and that’s about as far as it can go. I’ll give it 3 1/2 stars just because.

P.S. Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.

10 responses

  1. hou

    you’re criticisms are all extremely weak, it’s clear you didn’t wan’t to like the movie almost from the start.

    the mother is intense/obsessive etc when she is simply living through her daughter/wanting her to succeed.

    she becomes more concerned when she realises her daughter is actually going nuts. = makes perfect sense.

    You seem to pick out things to try and support an argument that doesn’t even need making. e.g the death.

    “a death caused by the gradual damage of an eating disorder”

    seriously….seriously? so the final scenes should have been her lying in bed for days/weeks as she slowly wastes away!?

    get a clue.

    December 31, 2010 at 10:21 am

    • I rarely go to movies in the theater. When I go, it’s because I expect to really like the movie I’m seeing. I think it’s going to be something special. So stop building straw men.

      My problem with the mother is that her conflict with Natalie Portman had no conclusion. The obsession was built up, the tensions rose, and then at the end, the movie forgot to resolve the conflict. There needed to be a final resolution. When Natalie Portman realized she had not killed her fellow dancer, I (and others) expected that maybe it would be her mother that she had killed. That would have been a far more satisfying resolution. It would have rung true psychologically. It would have used the established fact that her mother had previously been a dancer and had given it up for her daughter. And, spoiler, it would have echoed Perfect Blue, Aronofsky’s inspiration. Having her stab herself really had no psychological truth to it. It was just an empty-headed twist. And all the elements of her mother’s obsession, everything that they established and built up, just went completely to waste. The mother was heavily obsessed throughout the first portion of the film, and then all of a sudden the script forgot that trait and made her merely concerned.

      The death most certainly is a point that needs making. It’s a hollow conclusion to the story, and why does she really die? No, I don’t want the medical reason. I want the reason for why the story requires her to die. It’s just because Aronofsky wants Portman’s story to parallel the heroine in Swan Lake. But that isn’t a good enough reason. Portman’s story has parallels to Swan Lake, but not enough for her death to be merited by the screenplay. And having her unconsciously stab herself is total bullshit. As I said before, the Black Swan alter-ego that Portman sometimes sees is not a villain but an essential part of Portman that she has disowned. So she is in conflict with herself. The correct resolution of that conflict is for her to make peace with herself, to accept that the Black Swan is part of who she is, not for her to kill herself. Aronofsky failed to understand this simple principle, instead having a simple good/evil dichotomy, which is why I say that things are not so “black & white… swan.”

      Half my problem with Portman’s death is the way she died, which was bullshit. If she had died from her bulimia, which would have been a more natural reason that wouldn’t have been fraught with bogus good vs. evil politics, I would have been ok with that. She wouldn’t have slowly wasted away in a bed, either. She would have been weak and undernourished, and the strain of dancing Swan Lake perfectly would have taxed her beyond the limit. So when she fell at the end of the play, now that her goal had been achieved, she would have fallen unconscious and never woken up again. No need to show hospital beds and IVs, although you could do it that way. Even have the white of the hospital parallel heaven, much like the warm gold in The Fountain. Or just have her fade away right there in the theater, similarly to the way she did at the end. You know what else would have worked about this conclusion? The film would have actually USED her bulimia instead of weakly introducing it and having it go nowhere. And there would have been a real reason for her death: she hadn’t made peace with herself soon enough.

      I have all the clues. All of them.

      January 1, 2011 at 3:18 pm

  2. Jen

    I enjoyed your review and agreed with most of it. Mostly, while I wanted to like the movie, I just felt insulted by the lack of subtlety, as you mentioned. It’s a cardinal sin, whether in movies or plays or writing, to not trust the material and resort hammering one’s main points over and over. In Black Swan, there’s no reason, a la a David Lynch film, for instance, to go watch it again and again and find the smaller pieces that you missed the first time that give the puzzle even greater clarity because it’s all splayed out there for one to see the first time. But I don’t know whether it’s Aronofsky’s fault or the fact that modern audiences have very little patience for anything but easily digestible “take-home” points.

    January 10, 2011 at 1:41 pm

  3. I absolutely absolutely get you. Why? Because I say the same things.

    Cheers…

    January 18, 2011 at 12:19 am

  4. Greg

    Great review, IMO. The thing that absolutely nails the flawed centre of this flick is Aronofsky’s self-satisfaction about the parallels between the story of the movie and the story of Swan Lake. That’s the kind of sophomore silliness that makes me cringe and has no place in a work of art purportedly for adults.

    Yes, it’s a “work of art”, all right – for people with no taste of their own.

    PS: Could you PLEASE change the white on black theme? It’s horrid to read!

    January 30, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    • Thanks for enjoying my post! The white-on-black stays.

      February 2, 2011 at 3:58 am

  5. Tess Austin

    Great review. One problem I had with the movie that few people mention is that I didn’t believe that a principal soloist at a major ballet company would suddenly develop this type of schizophrenia because of one role. As a principal soloist she would already have had featured roles. There is so much tension and stress in just becoming a ballerina that it seemed unbelievable to me that one role would push her over the edge. Also the competition is fierce. Most likely that kind of mental fragility would have pushed her out of dancing years before.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:57 am

  6. patch

    Hi, I saw the movie only tonight and I agree that it has ups and downs, and its a bit flawed and or cliché in some ways but what resonated with me is that it is about art and the sakrifices that come with it.
    The duality of good and evil, black and white, is sometimes a little too obvious but I saw myself going over these fast just for the greater aim of the film, artistic creation.
    Nina, as you say, certainly didnt have to die and dying as she did could surely be served by death by bulimia, although long meals followed by time passed in the bathroom and subsequent progressive weakening of her body to a state where a simple faux-coupé would be tiresome or simply very hard to do would undoubtedly be electrikally charged scenes maybe a piece of glass nested in your chest can just be a tad more visceral, dunno(sory kouldnt help it:).
    Also I didnt felt the story of these characters paralleled Swan Lake so much, only two tragedies unfolding side by side. Nina died for the love of art, she was the Black Swan after she killed and maibe underneath the khaos knew she would die for her love for perfection and so she choose and in the end was in peace with herself.
    Just one way of viewing it anyway;)
    One final thought as for sure I dont support ultimate sacrifices per artistic creation I just try to comprehend.
    Peace

    February 13, 2011 at 12:56 am

  7. Fabiano Diefenthaeler

    I got some of the points and I do agree with some of them, but I can’t help commenting that I think you missed the point of the movie.

    You never happened to mention Nina’s main objective (and the movie’s main theme, I believe): to achieve perfection.

    What’s at stake for her is finding perfection. This is loud and clear in the movie. Ballet is her life and she’s been taught by her mother to seek nothing less than perfection, just because her mother is also a pathological perfectionist (and also beacuse classical ballet dancing is a perfection art). She’s insecure about everything else, and this is the one and only chance to achieve her presumably long held goal. In her (and her mother’s) head, she must be perfect. No wonder her mother didn’t want her to dance at the end, she didn’t seem properly fit to achieve perfection.

    In order to become perfect, she must become the black swan. And, for the same reason, she must die at the end. If she accepted the black swan as just part of herself, in your proposed ending to the movie, it wouldn’t have been perfect, see?

    It wouldn’t make sense to have her die of bulimia also, as no one dying of it would ever be able to dance a full ballet. She had to die by her own means, because this is the way she found to perfection.

    Sure, the doppelganger, the good/evil, the schizofrenia… all those concepts are mixed together… but it’s not the main focus.

    February 13, 2011 at 1:23 am

  8. Brock

    Thanks for nailing so many of the things that felt “off” about this movie.
    I’m not a fan of psychological thrillers or ballet, so this movie was a hard sell for me in the first place. But to win my approval you have to do more than add grossout CGI and editing more akin to a modern music video than a film. If they had stuck to the themes you pointed out the movie could have stood on its own two feet without special effects.
    I don’t mean to put myself on a pedestal but it seems the vast majority of Americans would rather have special effects to keep them interested than a well-constructed story, but with the cheapness of it nowadays it’s an easy way to turn a character study into a horror movie and claim the imagery is deep symbolism. When are the gimmicks going to end? Probably when the industry stops catering to the lowest common denominator long enough to actually let a good script get filmed.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:06 am

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