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.