[Movies] Review: Black Swan

Natalie Portman in Black Swan - "properly mental"

Natalie Portman in Black Swan - "properly mental"

Why would a couple, whose surname is Aranofsky choose to name their offspring Darren? It’s like Mr and Mrs Lilywhite calling their boy Billy, or Steve and Angie Omerston opting to name their new-born Thomas. I only bring it up because it’s a thought that occurred to me several times during Darren Aranofsky’s latest film, Black Swan. It’s not that I was bored per se, though boredom certainly played a part, more that the events on screen were so unappealing and uncomfortable that my brain decided to actively seek out alternate ways to occupy itself. At one point I began counting pick-n’-mix. This, as you can imagine, is not a great sign.

So, that said, let me attempt to boil Black Swan down to its core components. Very Thin Girl (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer at a top dance company in what is presumably New York. She lives with her slightly psychotic failed ballet dancer mother (Barbara Hershey). Very Thin Girl is hard working, uptight, innocent, cosseted and as we shall soon see, properly mental. So Very Thin Girl gets given the lead role in Swan Lake by Predictably Sleazy French Ballet Guy (Vincent Cassell). Said role requires Very Thin Girl to play both the virginal, naive White Swan and her twin, the lusty, jealous Black Swan.

But guess what? Very Thin Girl can’t get the Black Swan bit right because she’s too innocent, pure, virginal and the rest. So Predictably Sleazy French Ballet Guy and Oversexed Possibly Lesbian Hot Other Ballet Girl (Mila Kunis) try to get her to open up emotionally and sexually.

So as Very Thin Girl starts to loosen up (via some bath-time onamism and the world’s least shocking scene of cinema drug-taking) she finds she’s able to do the Black Swan stuff a bit better. So far, so simple. Life mirrors art, art mirrors life, and everyone gets to see a lot of shots of impossibly thin women standing on their toes and shuffling around stage, interspersed with a bit of lady-fiddling. Its all very try-hard art-house. Frankly though, the plot is about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from the kind of erotic thrillers they used to show in the early days of Channel 5.

Mind you, Aranofsky’s films have always been more about character portraits than gripping storylines. Our focus is solely on Natalie Portman’s character and her descent from uptight, unappealing, ballet-obsessed, ingenue to uptight, unappealing, temper-tantrum throwing, occasional drug-taking, bath wanking mentalist. Her descent into madness, self harm and violent attacks on others manifests itself through scenes of unpleasantly gory mutilation, some nutty hallucinations and a nasty rash that turns out to be the worst case of hairy shoulder syndrome I’ve ever seen.

It’s all very metaphysical, what with the things that look real but aren’t and the constant hammering of patronising symbolism into the audiences’ minds. It’s about as subtle as having a rock carved with the word “metamorphosis” smashed repeatedly into your face until you stagger away sobbing that you get the bloody point and would prefer something a bit less telegraphed in your cinematic character development next time.

We get it. She’s becoming the Black Swan. The feathers popping out of her upper back are labouring the point a tad. But there’s more joy to be had. For Aranofsky, who delicately balanced poignant dialogue and brutal scenes of self-flagellation in The Wrestler seems to have truly gone of the metaphorical rails. In what seems a sad and desperate attempt to keep things – you know, “dark” – he resorts to every clichéd thriller trick in the book. The person hiding in the corner of the unlit room. The crazy chick that gets a bit stabby with themselves. The face that turns in to someone else’s mid-coitus. Throw in the kind of real-or-not real twists that went out of fashion with Fight Club and The Sixth Sense and you’ve got some idea what we’re talking about here.

Portman herself is fine. Labouring under the weight of a script that alternates between moments of screamy stabbing and long periods of utter nothingness, she gives the role the kind of dead-eyed coldness it seems to warrant. Her dancing is convincing, though the overuse of above-the-waist close-up handheld shots serves only to make the viewer nauseous and reveal the fact that she obviously isn’t a proper dancer. Sadly, her character is one whose journey leaves the audience stone cold. She’s entirely without empathy. A boring, neurotic girl who becomes marginally less boring for about ten seconds before becoming even more neurotic and even more utterly unlikeable. It’s not even as if anything terrible happens to her to precipitate such a vertiginous decline in her mental health. She gets her dream job, snogs her boss, takes a single ecstasy tablet and fiddles with herself while having a wash. If that’s enough to corrupt a normal girl and send her spiralling towards self-destruction then it’s a miracle anyone escapes puberty.

There’s a lot of buzz about Black Swan in awards season. It’s garnered five Oscar nominations, including best picture – and it’s not hard to see why. It appeals to that part of mainstream Hollywood that likes to congratulate itself on its own broad cultural horizons by handing out awards to overwrought, pretentious drivel like Jane Campion’s The Piano. Black Swan isn’t even close to being that terrible, mind. It’s just not very good. A jazzed up cross between a workaday erotic thriller and a psychological horror flick that groans under the weight of its own self-importance, bereft of a sympathetic protagonist and all-too cliched in its execution. It’s destined to get far more praise than it deserves, and will doubtless attract tens of thousands of cinemagoers with its heady blend of snobby culture and critical acclaim. Sadly most of them will leave baffled and bored. Much like ballet in real life, then.

6/10

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One Comment on “[Movies] Review: Black Swan”

  1. James
    May 4, 2011 at 3:34 pm #

    It’s all very metaphysical, what with the things that look real but aren’t and the constant hammering of patronising symbolism into the audiences’ minds. It’s about as subtle as having a rock carved with the word “metamorphosis” smashed repeatedly into your face until you stagger away sobbing that you get the bloody point and would prefer something a bit less telegraphed in your cinematic character development next time.

    I want to marry this paragraph, for we have so much in common.

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