Black Swan: When Campiness Happens To Good Filmmakers
Imagine a film which is set in the world of ballet, but borrows heavily from Showgirls, All About Eve, and Mommie Dearest. There’s sex, violence, dream sequences, hallucinations, catfights, bitchy moms, tawdry workplace seduction, fabulous costumes, and big gaudy dance numbers. Does this film sound like a hilarious cult classic, a film destined to play in specialty theaters at midnight for years to come? Well, while it might also be that, it’s also the most buzzed-about new film of the winter, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. It’s led by a bravura performance by Natalie Portman, which keeps it from sinking underneath the weight of the story’s campy nature, and certainly Aronofsky succeeds in making the film entertaining… but never before has the line between award-worthy and trashy been so thin.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a long-time ballerina in a New York ballet dance company, and she’s convinced that this year the director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), will feature her more. Sure enough, Thomas says at the first practice of the new season that the old star, Beth (Winona Ryder), will no longer be the headliner, and Nina will start the new season in a new “stripped-down” version of Swan Lake (still looks pretty extravagant to this ballet novice, but perhaps I’m splitting hairs). Nina is a very controlled perfectionist of a dancer, a hard worker with no desire to lose control– she lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey), who certainly pushes her hard to strive for greatness. However, in Swan Lake, she has to dance two parts: the virginal White Swan and the seductive Black Swan, and Thomas believes Nina can’t do it. Meanwhile, a new dancer in the company named Lily (Mila Kunis) captures the essence of the Black Swan perfectly– she’s not a great dancer, but she dances with passion. Nina feels Lily closing in, Thomas trying to seduce her, her mom trying to control her, and all the while the rash on her back is starting to spread…
There’s no denying the film is entertaining. My arthouse theater in which I saw Black Swan was laughing at the catfights, hissing at the bitchy comments, and screaming at the jump-scare tactics Aronofsky employs. This is a theater which is usually silent except for the sound of people patting themselves on the back for being so reverent. So it’s without question that the movie works. While many of the performances were a touch too hammy or melodramatic for my taste– Barbara Hershey in particular clenches her jawbone tightly and makes crazy eyes as the mother for the whole film– the reason why the movie doesn’t devolve into just another Hollywood campfest is Natalie Portman. She doesn’t appear to think the film is funny or a joke at all, and she elevates many of her sillier moments by performing them with a straight face. She embodies both sides of Nina flawlessly. It’s enough to make one imagine what a film like Showgirls would have been like with a compelling actress in the lead instead of someone lacking in talent.
Because make no mistake, the similarities between this and something like Showgirls are plenty. Many of the lines of dialogue and plot twists are equally silly. Aronofsky has no qualms about inserting laugh-out-loud moments of bitchiness between the characters. When Thomas tells Nina her homework is to touch herself, it’s not a truly shocking moment. It’s shocking in a shallow way, so that it doesn’t rattle the audience beyond making a few select people catcall “oh no he DIDN’T!” The camera lingers on body punishment, with skin mutilation, foot mutilation, finger mutilation, leg mutilation, and induced vomiting all on the menu. It also lingers on the sex, as if Aronofsky knew the audience wanted the lesbian sex scene to last as long as possible. In dance numbers and in particular a masturbation scene, he let the camera focus on Portman’s behind as it writhes and twists.
Warm-blooded males reading this review wonder why I am complaining about now. I’m not. The film was engaging, and I was never bored– far from it, the film had me laughing and catcalling the bitchy mother and evil ballet director as well, but I wonder… if not for Natalie Portman playing it straight, would critics be slobbering over it like they are? It’s shot nicely, but many of the jump-scares, escalated by a loud screeching score, are over-the-top and cheap. The movie devolves into silliness, especially during the finale– ironically, the best part of Portman’s performance. It’s as if the movie gets goofier the further she dives into the role, like it can’t stand having a moment of real human emotion without sweeping the leg out from under it with hallucinations and violence. Aronofsky asks you to wonder whether Nina is hallucinating at many moments throughout the film, to the point where you can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t. He seems inspired by Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, another film that sets a great tone but is ultimately incredibly silly. If you want a movie that will make you laugh and jump from your seat, and you want to see how a great actress can elevate material, then Black Swan is for you. If you love seeing films with Academy Award hype and you’re looking for something with depth and meaning, this isn’t the place to go– this movie swan dives into the absurd far too quickly to have deeper meaning.