Posted by: gdevi | July 18, 2011

Movie Review: Black Swan (2010)

It is no doubt distressing when those of us who know Tchaikovsky’s SwanLake by ear has to erect all these artificial constraints to send your little kids out of the room when watching Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan because it is, as my eleven-year old daughter astutely observed before she left the room, psycho.  My first thought on seeing Black Swan was that this is a film that pretends that the last one hundred years in human social, political and intellectual history never happened. This movie would have been perfect in the nineteenth century, or perhaps earlier, much earlier as in twelfth century. It is the ultimate male fantasy about chick flicks. In this fantasy, women are weepy and whiny, and generally hate themselves and their mothers, they seek perfection and approbation from a man, they see each other as competing over a man, and the cure to all this psychotic hysteria is to have an orgasm: one good f*** as that great American philosopher Harold Robbins said, and then you are all right, you are perfect, you are happy, you are in love, whatever.  Go, touch yourself, the ballet director tells Nina in Black Swan; you got to let yourself go and come, and then you will be perfect as the Black Swan. The fact that you can’t act is because you can’t come. You need to fix that. [ Can you imagine the director of an American ballet company telling one of his dancers lines like these? The company will be shut down the next day.] It is at this point that I decided that this movie is not for kids. I have nothing against on-screen masturbation or even talking on-screen about masturbation–in fact, one of the most unforgettable interviews on that program Inside the Actor’s Studio is the one with Naomi Watts where she describes how utterly humiliating it was to act the masturbation scene in Mulholland Drive with David Lynch and the whole crew watching her sitting with her hands down her pants. Watts imitates Lynch’s recognizable nasal squeak perfectly: “Go on Naomi, keep going, go on.” Watts talks about wanting to slit her wrist and die, but what a wonderful director Lynch was and what a great movie that was. It is true. But the masturbation scenes in Black Swan are for the director playing the perverse psychologist and bad philosopher; it is the visual equivalent of a psychobabble and bad faith.  It is unbelievable that such a woman’s role was given the highest acting honors at last year’s Oscars, best actress in a feature film. Whatever happened to characters such as that played by Frances McDormand in Fargo? From Marge Gunderson to Nina Sayers–we have set the clock back some five hundred years.

Black Swan has a pitiable screenplay with unbelievably vapid lines. Along with the weepy female archetype this screenplay also flirts with the stereotype of the artist as a tortured soul, self-destructive and in this case, derivative. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer, timid and frigid we have to assume with so many commands to orgasm, lacking self-confidence, and with a twisted, passive-aggressive mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who was herself a ballet dancer who gave up her career to give birth to Nina and take care of her, as she never fails to remind Nina, and us. Subtlety is not one of Aronofsky’s strong point; everything is flat and pounded and driven home to us again and again. We have to assume that Nina has the perfection-syndrome while not really having the wherewithal to achieve it. The fact that she has aspirations but not the core for it is shown in the scene where she steals the ballet company’s former star dancer Beth’s  (Winona Ryder) make-up supplies from her dressing room. She is trying to be someone she is not. This becomes a problem because while she is perfect as the white swan–the good swan–she cannot summon the “darkness” necessary to play the evil-twin, black swan. So how does one get to play villains?  Ask around, and different actors will give you different emotive and imaginative techniques–men and women who have played rapists, murderers, torturers, child molesters, child-killers, incestuous parents–I might recommend Dante’s Divine Comedy for a full inventory of human depravities. People just like you and me have written these things and acted them out. But Darren Aronofsky’s technique is to make Nina masturbate, have orgasms, oral sex with a woman, cut herself all the time, have nervous breakdowns, and finally the ultimate coup of perverse satisfaction: kill herself so she can be the perfect swan. By this point, we no longer care whether the swan is white or black, or any other color. You really want to tell this girl, you know what, take a break, go get help, you are seriously messed-up, you shouldn’t be acting at all.

Because what do we mean by these terms, good and evil? And do they have anything to do with your ability to have an orgasm? We all have two aspects to our personalities, all of us do. One that is aligned with public, collective goals. And another one that is aligned with private personal goals. In a successful, ethical life the public and the private balance each other. When the private goals overtake the public ones, and in the worst cases harm public goals–and these are not rare at all–we don’t have to look towards Wanted posters for this — it is all around us — then that is what is called evil. The private interests cross a line. That is what is called selling your soul to the devil etc if you are religiously inclined. Nina Sayers cannot become a great dancer not because she cannot have an orgasm–an orgasm is not going to fix this — but because she wants something that she has not earned: the lead role in the ballet.  Can sexual repression be a symptom of other insecurities? Yes they can, and to some extent the doppelganger element in this movie — white/ black, good/ evil — tries to connect Nina’s sexual repression to her creative failures. But where the movie is wrong is in its assumption and subsequent totally serious demonstration that the evil — the shady things she does including killing herself at the end — there I have given away the spoiler for you!!! — have made her a better, perfect artist. Nina dies uttering “I am perfect.” Lot of people think this way. But it has not, it has simply ended a life that was more or less lived in fear, ignorance and rather pitiable selfishness.

The original Swan Lake is a chick-flick story, and is actually perfect for an informed take on gender relations. Instead Aronofsky appears to buy the story at face-value and tell us that this is how artists are, they die for their roles, they would kill themselves to satisfy the role and the audience. In reality, there would be no Hollywood if actors did that. In reality, most actors–not all, but most– die in bed in Brentwood, Beverly Hills or nearby surrounded by agents, friends and family. I am sure Aronofsky would be. So would Natalie Portman. I don’t know why you would want to make and sell a movie that says otherwise. I thought of Portman as a cute person, but in this movie, she is unbearable, and that is not entirely her fault. Vincent Cassal as the ballet director has really not much to do other than to appear domineering and occasionally put his hand between the legs of women and bite women on the lips. Mila Kunis, the actress who plays Lily, Nina’s nemesis, the woman that Nina thinks is the cause of her downfall is type-cast, the swarthy, dark-complexioned woman who has got to be bad compared to the sweet and fragile Nina, white=good, black=bad, as with the black swan/white swan dichotomy.  And then to have these two women, not to mention Winona Ryder’s Beth–all three of them fight over the ballet director; what an orgy! Tells you what sells in Hollywood these days in the name of high art.



  1. I found this your page looking for some info about Flaubert.. Thank you for the review!

    • You are welcome. Thanks GD.

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