Darren Aronofsky did a very good job when he made the film The Wrestler. As someone who has watched wrestling since I were a lad back in the year of our lord Nineteen Hundred and Ninety One, I was able to watch that film and say ‘Yes, that is a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be a fading former wrestling star trying to retain a living on the small time, indepedent circuit’.
So when I heard about The Black Swan, I was intrigued. Yes, Aronofsky appeared to be taking a relatively easy step to his next film – i.e. ‘This time I’m going to expose the sleazy side of another form or performance art’ ( in this case Ballet) – but since he’d done a realistic and entertaining job of wrestling, then there might well be enjoyable to see him ‘expose’ high-brow art instead of low-brow.
As it happens, much like The Wrestler, the film is very entertaining, but unlike The Wrestler – and even though I know almost nothing about ballet – I wouldn’t have thought it was particularly realistic.
As the film is just out, I’ll try and avoid any major spoilers about the plot.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) plays a ballet dancer who is part of prestigious dance troupe (Any ballet fan reading this will probably be raging at me referring to them as a dance troupe. The probably have some sort of proper name like ‘A Bucephalus of Ballet Dancers’). She is very dedicated to her craft and practices seemingly all day and night; ballet is her life. It seems to be her mother’s life as well. For you see at first glance, Nina’s mother appears to be one of these terrible parents who tries to live vicariously through her children, because didn’t achieve what they wanted to before they had the children they secretly resent – a bit like my aunt.
So Nina has an unhealthy obsession with ballet. She clearly starves herself (and you have to give credit to her and to Mila Kunis for going down to an uncomfortably low weight to play the part with a bit of realism), she practices the point of personal injury and she gets so nervous about her obsession that she has a problem of scratching herself to the point of breaking the skin.
Anyway, to set the scene at the start of the film, we find out that the lead ballerina is being forced into retirement by the stereotypical Stromboli-like Head Choreographer (played by a guy with an uncanny resemblance to Tricky Dicky off Eastenders) because she’s ‘too old’. So who is going to replace her when the new season starts with a version of Swan Lake? You can probably guess.
And here is where my issue with the film comes in. The trailer of the film suggested it would show the cut-throat world of ballet, with two dancers – Nina and her rival Lily (Kunis) – vying for the lead role in Swan Lake. But that’s not what it’s about at all.
In fact, Mila Kunis’s character isn’t really featured that prominently at all.
For the first 45 minutes or so, the film is about Nina and how she’s a technically brilliant dancer but – in the opinion of Tricky Dicky – doesn’t show enough personal expression when dancing. Everything is very mechanical with her, and she doesn’t ‘lose herself to the music’ enough. He tries to extract that level of personal expression from her by attempting to have his wicked way with her on a couple of occasions. Steady on sir!
But I don’t think Aronofsky had enough plot to keep that going, so he chooses to explore a different path – that Nina is mentally ill. Now, this isn’t the cuddly sort of mental illness that we saw in Harvey, or that I suspect my window cleaner suffers from, but rather the ‘She’s fucked up and a danger to herself and others’ variety.
And so the film really stops being about ballet and instead becomes a film about mental illness. In my opinion that’s taking the easy way out, because mental illness means you can pretty much forget the plot and instead see out the film relying heavily on one of my most hated scripting techniques – the Bait & Switch scene. There are far too many scenes that leave you thinking ‘Did she do that or was it in her head’. Taking this route with the film, Aronofsky pads the film out with set-pieces such as self harm, gruesome injuries and of course Lesbianism.
Yes, for all you FilmLADS out there, there is a scene where Portman and Kunis ‘get it on’. In the old days they’d call that ‘One for the Dads’. But wait, it was all in her head.
Because for every 4 things that appears to happen in the film, 3 of them didn’t and the reset switch gets pressed. That’s just such lazy scripting in my opinion.
Things reach a confusing climax, which I won’t spoil for you, when you aren’t sure who did what to who, or how they did it. What is real and what is fake anymore? And if what is implied happened actually happened, how did nobody notice the blood (that’s probably got those of you who haven’t seen it intrigued)?
The ending to the film is a bit unnecessary in my opini0n and appears to just be about Aronofsky wanting to re-do the ending to the Wrestler, but this time with no ambiguity.
So Should You Go and See Black Swan?
Yes. For all my criticisms of the film, I did actually enjoy it a lot. It certainly didn’t drag at any point, it’s well acted and I found it quite engrossing. But it wasn’t what was sold to me. This isn’t a film about the life of a ballet dancer at all. That is explored pretty briefly at the start, but it really is more about a young woman’s struggle with obsession and mental illness.