BLACK SWAN: Let’s All Watch a Woman Who Needs Help Not Get Any

Black Swan (2010) – Directed by Darren Aronofsky – Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, and Barbara Hershey.

BLACK SWAN is a well-written, well-crafted, well-acted movie that made me feel uncomfortably dirty. No, no, not because of the “lezzie fantasy,” as Lily (Mila Kunis) puts it, but because the movie makes us complicit voyeurs in the mental unraveling of a young woman who needs help and gets nothing except encouragement to unravel further. At its core, BLACK SWAN is a psychological snuff film where Nina’s (Portman’s) spiral into madness is served up for our enjoyment.

Nina clearly has problems. Her mother (Hershey) turns a blind eye to the potential deep-rooted psychological issues by focusing on Nina’s intense scratching. Her boss (Cassel) is only interested in how to make her a better dancer. Well, and in getting in her pants. Her understudy/what-passes-for-a-friend (Kunis) wants to help her, to a degree, but her help comes in the form of booze, drugs, and sex. Maybe she’s doing this because she cares or maybe she’s just doing this because she’s the understudy and wants Nina’s part.

The whole affair just makes me uncomfortable as a viewer because there’s no “guessing game” here so when we get to the end and learn that Nina really didn’t screw Lily or kill Lily but rather stabbed herself, my reaction wasn’t “OHMYGAWD! BLACK SWAN JUST BLEW MY MIND!” but rather a shrug and a roll of the eyes. Since it’s so completely obvious that Nina is undergoing some kind of psychotic breakdown, I’m left with thinking we’re supposed to be enjoying not whether Nina is hallucinating her experiences, but rather which experiences are real and which are imagined.

That’s fun?

No. No, it isn’t.

The personal stakes in BLACK SWAN are too high for this movie to be enjoyable. Nina is in serious need of help but no one – even Nina – has any interest in getting her that help beyond what it can do for them. Everyone is so focused on her becoming a great dancer that they don’t see her problems, don’t care about her problems, or don’t know how to deal with her problems.

There’s not a single character in this film that is in the least bit likable. There’s only the four main characters but I didn’t like or care about any of them, and so when BLACK SWAN gets numbingly predictable (hey, look, the bad girl and the good girl are going out! I bet the good girl is totally gonna take the bad girl to church and get her to repress her sexuality! Oh snap, it’s the bad girl leading the way! I never saw that coming at all!) I started fingering the fast forward button.

Portman gives a fantastic performance as Nina, but I don’t care about her character at all. She’s a sheltered, meek, weepy, damaged little girl in a young woman’s body trying to make it in the rough world of a prestigious ballet company. Even though it’s a prestigious company, she lives in a crummy, cramped apartment with her mom. Her mother is also not completely mentally stable – she paints awful pictures and sobs a lot because … well, I don’t know, because she’s never reached her aspirations as a dancer and now seems to support/undermine her daughter’s attempt at rising through the ranks. I don’t really care – she’s one of those moms that’s terrible at being a parent and every good deed that she attempts (such as purchasing a cake to celebrate Nina getting the starring role in Swan Lake) is immediately rendered moot by something off-center (such as threatening to throw the cake away in a huff when Nina doesn’t want to indulge in a piece).

I don’t have any sympathy for either one of them. It’s not like Nina doesn’t want this life she’s leading and it’s not like she cares about her own personal well-being, so why should I?

Watching someone slowly fall apart is a drag and even though everyone is doing their professional best, I’m not moved by the experience.

At the center of Not Caring About Nina is the pull between Thomas (Cassel) and Lily, who want her to loosen up, and her mother, who wants her to be sheltered. If Mommy simply wanted to protect her daughter, that would be admirable, but she’s so unable to protect her in a healthy, meaningful manner that it gives me no enjoyment and, more damningly, fails to engage me.

Worse, Nina is either so broken by whatever treatment she’s gotten in the past related to her scratching or so focused on wanting to be the star dancer of the company or so sheltered by her mother that she doesn’t even know how to help herself, so what we get is this meek, weepy girl hiding things from her mom, feeling sorry for herself, and fantasizing about what she could actually have sexually.

The whole “loosening up” sequence is where the film sinks to its lowest depths. None of this “repressed girl goes out with the wild girl” stuff is in any way new or unique or even particularly well done. When Nina is awkwardly asking a boy (an honest to god boy!) if he knows Swan Lake and he’s like, “Heard of it,” but it’s obvious to anyone but Nina that he’s only interested in getting her naked, it’s just sad. It’s sad for Nina and it’s sad for us because we’ve seen this scene 1,000 times before and yet Aronofsky stubbornly refuses to get to the point. He lets it all play out in an agonizingly slow fashion and I just wanted the movie to be over by this point.

BLACK SWAN might actually have been better off if it had embraced the horror aspects because for all of my faults with the film, I was completely engaged (if not riveted) during the last half-hour of the movie. Once Nina is practicing alone on the stage and the lights go out, through her dissolution at home, to her oversleeping, to showing up late for opening night, to demanding that she gets to take the stage instead of Lily, and through her performance as she maybe kills Lily in her dressing room, Aronofsky crafts a wonderful, completely engaging story.

It’s still hard, though, to care about Nina, since in the middle of her rise into Black Swanhood, she kills Lily. Of course, we know she doesn’t really kill Lily, but she thinks she does and then she goes and dances her performance anyway. At least this intrigues me as a viewer because it sure doesn’t win me over to her side. I’m no longer rooting for her to give the performance of her life and the ending, where she’s stabbed and possibly dying and breathlessly happy about being “perfect,” rings up a big I Don’t Care in my head. You were perfect? Awesome. You only had to kill someone (Lily or the good part of yourself) to achieve that hollow victory.

BLACK SWAN is clearly a well-made movie, but it’s not very smart, it’s not very engaging, and it’s ultimate message of “perfection-through-pain” rings empty. It might all be tragically fantastic if I was the least bit interested in these characters.

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5 thoughts on “BLACK SWAN: Let’s All Watch a Woman Who Needs Help Not Get Any

  1. I enjoyed Portman WAY better in Branagh’s “Thor”, which I am not sure is a testament to a lighter performance in a feel-good movie. This is a movie I congratulate you on watching all the way through without slitting your wrists. I’m not saying I loved “Sucker Punch”, but I want to be entertained and in that I was, in this I wasn’t.

  2. Yeah, I’m all for challenging movies but this was pretty bleak. I would say that, for me, I like to be engaged more than entertained, but it’s much the same thing – I just want to be brought into the story whether it’s funny or serious and this movie didn’t do that for me.

  3. What this movie needed was Brian DePalma or Dario Argento some other director who would have embraced the horror elements instead of slinking around them as if he’s embarrassed by them being in his movie. Incredibly predictable and pretentious I consider BLACK SWAN to be one of the most overrated movies in recent years.

    When I had people telling me how “mind-blowing” BLACK SWAN was and how the ending took them so totally by surprise all I could say was “you need to see more movies, then” as anybody who’s seen a respectable number of horror movies could have seen where the story was going.

    I will say in the movie’s favor that it’s one of a growing number of films making me change my mind about Natalie Portman. Used to be I couldn’t stand her. Now, I’m beginning to appreciate her talent. And the real shame is that based on this and PI, I’m convinced that Darren Aronofsky could give us a horror movie we’d be too scared to watch if he wasn’t too scared to give it to us.

    • Completely agreed on what this film needed was a director who would embrace the horror. Aronofsky was to busy making a horror movie for non-horror movie fans.

      Agreed on Portman, too. She’s growing as an actress and it’s nice to see.

  4. Y’know what it about Natalie Portman for me? It’s like she’s finally learned how to friggin’ smile, fer cryin’ out loud. In too many of her early films she reminded me way too much of Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in that when she smiled it looked as if she were trying hard to remember what muscles to use to produce the desired effect.

    And I’ve long forgiven her for the STAR WARS prequel trilogy as George Lucas isn’t the most actor friendly director and even Meryl Streep would have looked awful having to act next that totem pole Hayden Christensen

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