Black Swan: odd bird

Black Swan poster

For the longest time I couldn’t visit the New York Times website without an ad for Black Swan popping up to the right of the article I was reading. Irritating, but it worked. I was intrigued by all the hooplah and finally saw the film.

Thanks for the publicity barrage, everyone must have heard the story, but for those who have somehow escaped it, here it goes: ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a driven, talented artist, but, though well into her twenties, she still lives in her pink-and-white little girl bedroom at her Mom’s apartment. More disturbingly, she suffers from hallucinations and repeatedly harms herself by scratching herself until she bleeds. This is the troubled young woman ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, appropriately creepy for a Hollywood Frenchman) picks for the plum and highly demanding part of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Any viewer will surmise things can only go downhill from there for poor Nina. Sure enough, they do, but I was forecasting that she would end up fire bombing the whole ballet company. Spoiler alert: I was wrong, though the ending is by no means happy.

Nina’s hallucinations haunt her through the whole film, and we suffer along. She continues peeling the skin off her back and fingers, which inexplicably goes unnoticed by anyone in the ballet company. She is constantly invited to get in touch with her dark side (echoes of Star Wars?) to play the dual parts of the Swan Queen and Black Swan, and berated for failing. After an hour of this, I was ready to head home, but decided to soldier on. How right I was! I would have missed the scene where Nina finally plays the Dark Swan and a thick black down sprouts over her arms and chest. When she moves away from the camera, one gets the eerie feeling that she is morphing into a gorilla in a tutu. I rubbed my eyes and felt the onset of giggles, but the audience remained absolutely quiet.

I had much enjoyed director Darren Aronofsky’s earlier film Pi for its quirky humor, and wondered whether he was again messing with the viewer in this superlatively campy scene. Possibly, but the film does not otherwise take any distance from its heroine. The story is seen strictly from her point of view, which makes any assessment of the other characters extremely difficult. Is Mom (Barbara Hershey) simply overprotective, or emotionally abusive? Is fellow ballerina Lily (lovely Mila Kunis) honestly trying to be friends, or scheming to destroy Nina to take over as the Swan Queen? Is the much vaunted (and totally unerotic) sex scene between the two ladies real, or Nina’s fantasy? I believe we are supposed to be content with guessing, and in my case I am not sure I cared enough to worry much about it.

This is a problem for a film that has been billed as a “psychological thriller.” It should have begun with a near-normal character and slowly plunged her, and us, deeper and deeper into the world of her nightmares. Here, it is obvious from the outset that Nina is so seriously ill that she has not a chance to pull off the part she has been assigned. It is only a matter of guessing how much damage she will inflict on herself and others. Without suspense, a thriller is not much of a thriller.

Also, and I readily admit that it is personal, I have trouble with films where I cannot find one single likable character. Because we see everyone through Nina’s distorted vision, we perceive all other characters as threatening, malicious, evil. As for Nina herself, I felt sorry for her, but could not identify with. Natalie Portman is beautiful, and manages to convey Nina’s extreme fragility. Yet this tour de force performance is more overwrought than convincing. On many occasions I caught myself thinking “Here’s Natalie trying really, really hard for an Oscar.”

All this work paid off. Ms. Portman was nominated for an Academy Award. Black Swan also garnered nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography  and Best Editing.


Natalie Portman in Black Swan

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