Yesterday, I watched Black Swan, a movie I had low, low expectations for. All of the previews and reviews made it seem like just another predictable psychological thriller, about a ballerina starring in “Swan Lake,” and the stuff that happens in “Swan Lake” happening to her.
And that’s precisely what it is. The stuff that happens to the White Swan in “Swan Lake” happens to Nina, a prima ballerina whose ensuing nervous breakdown is the only real storyline in the film. While this isn’t necessarily the meatiest concept for a movie, it could make for a visually interesting experience, with the viewer searching for the symptoms of Nina’s breakdown as she eventually loses enough of her mind to actually believe she’s the character she’s playing.
But holy shit, is this movie not that.
Instead of giving his audience the opportunity to take part in the experience, director Darren Aronofsky makes damn sure we don’t miss a thing, cramming practically every frame with as much ham-fisted symbolism as it will hold, telling us what to think like we’re a brood of insipid children. LOOK! Nina’s wearing white and surrounded by stuffed animals! LOOK! Lila the “bad” ballerina is wearing black … and smoking! LOOK! Nina’s mother paints pictures of her younger self and plasters them all over the walls!
The script is almost as relentless as the direction, refusing to give us characters that are anything more than cartoonish stereotypes (the innocent girl, the Jezebel, the past-her-prime star, the crazy stage mom, the foreign asshole ballet instructor), and repeating itself to the point where drinking games become fatal. And other than a few moments that could live on as camp classics (e.g. Barbara Hershey screaming “This role is destroying you!”), the dialogue is as clutzy and embarrassing as everything else.
Then there’s Natalie Portman, whose lauded performance did little to change my opinion of her as a one-note actress. She cries because she’s scared, does ballet stuff, cries because she’s crazy, does more ballet stuff, and then cries because she’s content. Only when placed side by side with the inferior talents of Mila Kunis does she seem Oscar-worthy.
By directing this paint-by-numbers story like it’s going to be a silent movie, throwing in gobs of stylized violence, and combining it with a script that just repeats the same tired motifs – sexual repression is bad, psychotic parents are bad – Aronofsky has made a film that’s going to give a major headache to anybody expecting a nuanced work of art.
Perhaps Aronofsky knows something we don’t know, and made this movie as a coded message to the few who could read between the lines. Maybe the government and the textile industry are in cahoots, secretly manufacturing clothing that can control the thoughts and behaviors of human beings – white tank-tops make you all wide-eyed, fidgety and weird; black tank-tops make you smoke cigarettes and act like a whore.
Or maybe he, and the three male screenwriters, just weren’t cut out to make a movie about a destructive mother-daughter relationship, and the psychological burden placed on young women in the ageist and sexist ballet world.
One thing is for sure. I’m never seeing another one of his movies again. And I mean it this time.