Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fact: Black Swans are native to australia.

Naturally, this meant I had a total freak out after seeing Natalie Portman enact the psychotic episode that is her new film, Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky). If you haven’t seen it, this post contains spoilers – not that that matters, because the story is based on Swan Lake, and even if it wasn’t, would be totally predictable anyway. Basically she’s a neurotic ballerina who has to play the Swan Queen in Swan Lake (both the black and white swan roles) and as the film progresses she becomes more and more entangled in a split personality disorder. She becomes violent and unpredictable, she can’t tell what is real or not and then ends up killing herself onstage in real life (just as the white swan kills herself after realizing her prince accidentally commits himself to the black swan).

Freak out! the black swan takes over. 
The tension of the film essentially lies in uncertainty around whether playing the split role caused her to become unwell, or whether her illess enabled her to perform the role so well. On the one hand, the film suggests she has a bunch of issues already (bulimia, a history of self-harm, crazy/repressed ballet mom who never got to “fulfil her career,” self-esteem issues, perfectionism, etc). On the other hand, the ballet industry seems to provide some impetus for triggering her mental illness: company director encourages the “dark side” of her to come out, by encouraging her to get sexual and trying to seduce her; rivalry with another dancer in the company spurs to fantasise about stabbing the girl to death (it is unclear for while though, whether Portman actually kills the girl or not), rivalry with the ex-prima ballerina who was booted so Portman could take the lead role (Portman then fantasises about this woman stabbing her face off with a nail file, though we don’t really know if it’s a fantasy or not). Etc. In the end, after receiving a standing ovation during the opening performance of Swan Lake, she jumps off the platform enacting the suicide of the ballet character, Odette – but simultaneously stabs herself in the gut and promptly dies. Curtain close. End film. Leave cinema feeling depressed and nauseated.

While Portman did give a stellar performance, and while Aronofsky did an effective job of getting the audience to feel as freaked out and confused as Portman’s character about what is real or not, there are some reasons why I REALLY DID NOT appreciate this film.

1. Gratuitously violent. The film is majourously gruesome with scenes of Portman imagining (or does she actually do it?) ripping her own fingernails out, peeling strips of skin from her arms and scratching the skin from her back. While this is not necessarily bad, it lent the film a horror-element which detracted from the psychological tension which was a lot more effective. The gory bits seemed thrown in to add some shock-factor, but were never really explored. At best they seemed a metaphor for the way that ballet/neuroticism was ripping her to shreds, (which in itself isn’t great as it reduces ballet to an awful metaphor, and fails to acknowledge the complexity around why people begin self-harming in the first place) and at worst, a cheap and nasty way of making a psychological thriller just that extra bit more nightmarish.

2. Based on a bunch of clichés. Portman’s “issues” that I mentioned earlier seem really extreme, and at the same time underdeveloped. Her eating disorder and relationship with her mother are not really investigated and the film seems to presume that the audience will fill this underdevelopment with stereotypes about the ballet industry. Plus – the misogynist ballet director, the sexy ballet-rival and the bitter-ex-prima-ballerina are worn out tropes that we have seen a gazillion times before. Plus, when Portman starts delving into her “dark side”, she does it to the max – goes out gets wasted, takes drugs, sleeps with some dude in the toilets, then has lesbian fantasy about rival-ballerina. I mean, what??!? It’s like they took every deviant act they could imagine and had her do it one night. (Plus, the positioning of her lesbian fantasy with the attractive rival as deviant seemed a) a failure to engage with gay relationships meaningfully and b) a cheap excuse to get attractive actresses naked).

How does such a pretty bird inspire such dread?
3. Glorifies suicide and offers no hope. While the film is clearly a tragedy, it offers NO HOPE. There is no empathy in the portrayal of Portman’s character, no pity for her plight: it basically says, if you’re crazy, there's no way out, you’ll wreck your own life and everyone else’s. Then she gets applauded as she kills herself – as if her real life death makes her great performance worth it. There is no questioning of how to deal with issues, and, due to all the clichés, no real accounting for why she might be the way she is. The film seems to blame ballet for all that goes wrong – but also seems to blame her own circumstances. Even the scenes of the actual dancing are limited, which means the audience don’t really get a sense of why Portman’s character would have invested so much of herself in it. Is it coz she wants fame? Money? Because she loves dancing? We don’t know.

Aronofsky is the master of gore and shock-factor, and though I never want to watch Requiem For a Dream again and wish I could erase most of it from my mind, at least that film demonstrated the consequences of a drug-lifestyle, how consumerism and capitalism destroy lives beyond repair, and the rampant sexism still occurring in a so-called post-feminist world. Black Swan, however, is problematic because it sets itself up to be a ballet film, but one that dishonours the ballet tradtion by filling it with a bunch of clichés; it sets itself up to be a psychological thriller, but  detracts from its tension with its schlock-horror-ness; it sets itself up to be a portrayal of mental illness, but portrays such illness unsympathetically with no real accounting for its cause or consequence. Apparently though, everyone else in the world loves it and it's raking in billions of box office dollars by the day. 

In any case, just to drag feminism into the mix, at least Portman has noted that it was unusual for a man to direct a film centering on female psychology, and that having more female Hollywood directors is something the industry we should aspire to. Read interview here.


  1. Okay so here's mine dude.
    Different yes obviously, but also different because i call it schizophrenia. And also because I wrote a thesis on affect. But yes! I want your thoughts.

  2. Hey cinemelz, Hey man, loved ya post. Actually I agree with you completely – Aronofsky’s ability to include the audience in Nina’s paranoia was exceptionally effective, and I really like your comment, “Aronofsky has created another vector into the film body. Is there a neat ending?” Great words, and I think an very important part of the film. Perhaps my problem with this was I felt that both schizophrenia and ballet were exploited to cinematic ends. I would like to think that such exploitation adds to his comment on the nature of cinema…but even if it did, Not sure how I feel about mental illness being used “blatant[ly]” for sensorial affect.
    Still – that doesn’t mean I can fault him on his film-making abilities!

  3. once again, you articulated my thoughts (too) jtul. black swan left me disappointed.

  4. Jules, what a brilliant post. You write so eloquently and seem to capture my reservations so articulately.

    I too felt little excitement for this film, in fact I came away feeling exhausted. Aronovsky's exploitation of cineamtic affect for the soul purpose of generating physical discomfort deterred me immediately. I emotionally disengaged within the first forty minutes and found myself becoming increasingly frustrated and agitated by what were, for me, predictable cinematic tricks employed for a heightened theatrical effect.

    Overall, I found it stressful watching for little reward. Natalie Portman's performance is impressive though.

    On another note, I just saw 127 hours - Danny Boyle's new film about the climber who gets stuck in crevice and has to chop his own arm off. This film has an intensity that parallels Black Swan's but manages to capture both the visceral and emotional depths of such an experience without alienating its viewer. I highly recommend!