Film (with rating): Black Swan (R)
this psychological thriller set in the world of New York City ballet dancers, a
nave, fragile ballerina (Natalie Portman) earns the coveted lead in Swan Lake,
only to slowly lose her mind as she struggles to embody both the
“good” White Swan and the more sensual, edgy Black Swan.
is the first movie I’ve reviewed that has stumped me. I don’t mean the subject
matter left me confused. What I mean is that I don’t have the foggiest idea
whether I loved or hated this film. I think I feel both extremes. Hence,
I admit, I felt very excited to finally see “Black
Swan” because of the endless critical acclaim and reviewer hype it
received since it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.
When it scored big at the Golden Globes and Portman walked away with
best-actress wins everywhere from the Phoenix Film Critics Society Awards to
the Academy Awards, I was even more determined to see it. Toss in a bit of real
life drama (Portman falls in love on the set! She’s carrying her fianc’s love
child! She lost a ton of weight and became a pseudo-ballerina for this role!),
well, call me hooked.
Billed as a horror movie and psychological thriller,
“Black Swan” appeared to take all I love about the cinema–scary
scenes, deep character development, rich storyline, strong themes, beautiful
music–and turn out an unforgettable piece of art. Yet as I sat in my family
room after watching said piece of art, I could only agree on one previously
held notion: it was unforgettable.
Honestly, as the credits rolled, I sat stunned: It’s over?
What happened? I expected so much more. Granted, the film really climbed high
on my expectation meter. But even with that acknowledged, I still felt shafted.
Was I missing something? I didn’t expect to be spoon-fed the entire story, but
a trail of breadcrumbs every now and they would be nice. At the risk of
sounding like a complete philistine, I didn’t get it.
I sat, trying to digest and make sense of the mess I watched
and decide if it indeed was the most amazing film of the century, or a piece of
self-indulgent and clich-filled garbage. I’m not alone. On IMDB.com, about
half of the nearly 900 reviewers hated it. The other half wanted to marry it,
so in love they were with it.
Days later, I realized the strength of the film: It refuses
to go away in the viewer’s head. Good or bad, it set up shop in my head and
wouldn’t go away. Layers peeled and I began to see things differently.
Let’s start with me “loving” this film.
“Black Swan” is a film student’s wet dream. It has
a zillion small and large, overt and subtle jewels that embody the art of
cinema. Directed by the acclaimed Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”),
“Black Swan” plays off the good/bad themes in numerous ways. Shadows
illustrate the darkness of the mind. The contrast of black and white, light and
dark is done well at times. Unfortunately, Aronofsky takes it over the top
(here, good Nina, put on bad Lilly’s black tank top and go wild!), but more
about that later. The lighting and visual effects added to the film, as did
Aronofsky’s brilliant camera angles. The makeup and special effects (I’m
talking about those black wings!) took my breath away.
Casting was phenomenal. In fact, the supporting cast equaled
brilliance. Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder positively glowed in
their performances. Hershey in particular resonated with creepy brilliance, and
Kunis was undeniably talented and mesmerizing. Portman’s portrayal of the Black
Swan definitely earned her the Oscar.
A few scenes definitely blew me away. The one with Ryder and
a nail file in the hospital, as well as the webbed toes and the gritty subway
scene with the old man. Brilliant and unforgettable. Then you’ve got the final
45 minutes of the movie (which, by the way, is not too long, unlike many other
critically acclaimed flicks). These final frames are intense, beautiful,
anxious, dark and ugly, all at once. They make the movie.
The musical score by Clint Mansell is haunting and delicious. Made me want to download the
The themes revolving around obsession, perfection and
impeding your own path to greatness–and the consequences of all–dominated
“Black Swan” and helped shape the plot. Aronofsky made some brilliant
directorial moves to make sure those themes resonated with not just his
characters, but with the audience.
Now let’s flip sides and hate the movie.
Portman. I’m not disputing her talent. But her character was
so weak, so fragile, I doubted she’d ever make it to the rank of lead ballerina
in a prestigious dance company. Hearing all of the hype about her role, I
expected more development, more depth. Instead, the richness came too close to
the end of the film for me to appreciate it. Sure, she worked hard to learn
dance skills and whittle her tiny frame down to microscopic proportions (which
actually was a distraction to me–I expected her to snap in half if she bumped
into a table). But so what? Portman’s portrayal of Nina’s constant doe-eyed
weepiness didn’t scream “OSCAR WORTHY!” to me at all. I’d go so far
as to say it was flat. Toward the end, sure, things got a lot better. But I
found it really hard to even care about Nina at all because she was so void. I
won’t even talk about Aronofsky’s constant, and I do mean constant,
close ups of Portman’s one-expression face. Again, that did nothing to add to
Nina’s character arc.
The clichs. Black wings tattooed on Kunis’ Lilly. Uh, yeah,
we get it. She’s the picture of the Black Swan Nina is trying to achieve. Got
that one, Darren. No need to beat me over the head with it. Lilly wears black all
the time and she’s naughty. Nina wears
white all the time and she’s
good. Yeah, yeah, I get it once again. Good vs. bad. Then you’ve got the
lecherous head honcho at the ballet company, the bad-stage-mommy character
(“I gave up my career for you!”), the mirrors, talking pictures and
in fact Portman’s whole character. Clich city!
Sex. I’m not even going to pick apart the girl-on-girl sex scene
(obviously written by a 15-year-old boy and totally gratuitous) because it just
flows right along with the other clichs this film is so riddled with. These
are not art-house fare, but been-there-done-that pieces of the past. You can’t
toss in some lesbian action, or some clever twists of color and lighting, and
call a film an art-house masterpiece.
The ending. What the hell? Real or imaginary? In fact, what
was real and what wasn’t? Theories abound. Nina imagined Lilly in some female
“Fight Club”-esque plot twist. She was molested by her controlling mother. She was dreaming
the entire thing and woke up at the end of the movie. Lilly really did want
Nina’s job and gladly pushed her to the brink. What was real and what wasn’t?
The dancing. If you’re a dancer, you’ll hate this film for
its inconsistencies and flat-out errors relating to the world of the dance. I
used to dance a hundred years ago, and even with my very limited experience, I
know that no prestigious dance troupe would ever hire a ballerina covered in
body ink. Many of the dance scenes are filmed close up, so we see a lot of hand
movement, but not a lot of dance. It’s obvious a body double was used for
Portman’s scenes, which is fine, but let the viewer see some beautiful dancing,
not just more of Portman’s flat expressions and skeletal arms. Please.
The plot. It’s slow. Then confusing. Then beautiful. Then a
mess. Mix in some “artsy” camera angles, and the end result is
cluttered and frustrated. To term it a horror film just because of a few bloody
scenes and some red eyes is a disservice to the horror genre. It’s possibly a
dramatic thriller, not a horror flick.
Okay. So is “Black Swan” amazing, or crap?
And here lies the major strength in this film. As you’re
sitting there digesting it and trying to figure it out, you realize that
Aronofsky was a bit brilliant. The movie is left up to the viewer to interpret.
This is not a flick you can sit back and enjoy. Nothing is served up to you.
You have to work at it, think about it, figure it out. No one–and certainly not
me–is going to tell you what this movie is really about because I believe it’s
up to the viewer. There are some theories that don’t hold water (um, if Lilly
does not exist, why does the guy in the bar order four drinks?), but that’s
part of “Black Swan’s” beauty. You get to think about it, do some
mental plies and jets, if you will.
OK, I’m now exhausted. To sum it up, “Black Swan”
is not the best movie I’ve ever seen. It may be one of my least favorites. It
did not match the hype. But it’s also unforgettable, thought-promoting,
haunting and dark. Watch it, if for nothing else to have something to talk
about. And don’t be afraid to admit you hated it. That doesn’t mean you’re a
Neanderthal unable to appreciate art. It just means you’re like a large, large
percentage of viewers who would like to see this swan cooked.
Metamorphosis : A behind-the-scenes documentary with Darren Aronofsky
What to serve for dinner: Lilly’s character orders a burger in the pivotal
bar scene. And Nina is so damned skinny, I want to force feed her a burger. So let’s whip up a Triple Smoke Burger (http://www.epicurious.com/).
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
tablespoons minced chipotle in adobo, including some sauce, divided
1/2 pounds ground beef chuck (not lean)
teaspoons sweet smoked paprika
large red onion, cut into 4 (1/2-inch) thick rounds, each stuck with a wooden
pick to keep it together
firm-ripe avocado, quartered lengthwise, peeled, and cut lengthwise into
1/3-inch thick slices
Olive oil for brushing on onion and avocado
hamburger buns, grilled or toasted
lettuce; cilantro sprigs
In a food processor or blender, pure mayonnaise, mustard,
and 1 tablespoon chipotle; transfer to a bowl. Cook bacon in batches in a
skillet over medium heat, turning occasionally, until crisp; transfer to paper
towels to drain.
Gently mix beef with 1 tablespoon chipotle, paprika, and 1
teaspoon salt until combined. Form into 4 (4-inch) patties. Prepare a grill for
direct-heat cooking over medium-hot charcoal (medium heat for gas).
Meanwhile, brush both sides of onion rounds and avocado slices
with olive oil. Oil grill rack then grill onion rounds, turning over once,
until slightly charred, 2 to 3 minutes total. Discard wooden picks.
Grill avocado slices, turning once, until grill marks
appear, about 30 seconds on each side. Grill patties, covered only if using a
gas grill, until they reach 160F on an instant-read thermometer, approximately
5 to 6 minutes on each side.
Put sauce on buns and make burgers with lettuce, avocado,
bacon, onion, and cilantro.
What to talk about over dinner: Where do I start? Just check out my review above
and see if you agree or not with my points. Which camp do you subscribe to,
love it or hate it? Why? What theory do you believe? Was the ending real, or
metaphorical? Was Lilly real, or in Nina’s head? Was the mother abusing Nina?
Who was the most clichd character? The most well-rounded character? Did this
movie honestly deserve all those accolades and critical acclaim? Why? Did
Portman deserve a best actress honor? What was your favorite scene? Did this
film make you love ballet more? Did it really showcase the lives of ballerinas?
What did you think of the supporting cast?. Dissect the film as if you were a
film student. What do some of the more subtle scenes mean? Did Aronofsky do a
good job portraying the mental demise of Nina? Or was she already broken before
the opening scene? What finally broke her? What life moral did you take from