Black Swan Review

Black Swan is almost universally acclaimed, no?

That is what I thought before watching it, but when it turned out I did not particularly enjoy it, I did some research and found some opinions that like mine. Most of the mid-level reviews on Metacritic, including some pretty respectable ones like NPR, Time, and New Yorker, match mine pretty well.

Fair disclosure to start – I grew up with a ballerina sister and stage mom. Also, the Cloverfield-esque camerawork made me nauseated almost from the beginning. The second is an obvious problem, but I mention the first because some of the people I discussed the movie with seemed to think that being a ballerina and having a domineering mother were in themselves enough explanation for Nina (said ballerina) going insane. I disagree, obviously, but it is sort of a bias.

I am a fan of Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky (very much so, in the second case –  Requiem For A Dream is absolutely in my top ten movies of all time). All of the cool visual innovation of the second is there (though the gritty / shaky cam seemed a bit out of place in, say, the ballet sequences), and Natalie did a great job acting…

But there is a problem there, which is the script. Nina is a pretty flat character. Basically, mundane things frighten her. She can be reduced to a stammering, whimpering state by simple questions from long-term acquaintances, and even before she wins the role that I think was supposed to drive her insane, she is having weird anxiety attacks about really random things like seeing another girl on the subway.

She has a few moments here and there where she breaks from her shell, but basically she lives like a little child, with no real explanation why other than that she “is the white swan”, a comment made several times in the movie. So, she is lovable and sheltered. In the Black Swan world, ‘sheltered’ means you have never dated, sleep with stuffed animals, and your mom undresses you every night and tucks you in while turning on a musicbox for you.

Did I mention the characterization bothered me? Not only is Nina weird and stereotypical, but basically everyone else is. Her mom is overprotective and controlling. How do we know? She constantly hovers over Nina, insists on helping her get dressed, and has a giant room full of portraits of her. Yep, her mom’s idea of a good time is sitting around and drawing pictures of Nina. There is a ‘bad girl’ in this movie, t00 – you know she is bad because she eats cheeseburgers, smokes constantly, and has fun by picking up random guys for one night stands while downing liquor and taking Ecstasy. subtlety is not part of this movie’s repertoire, to say the least. By the way, the bad girl does all the above while being a professional ballet in New York because, even though she is said to be not so good at dancing, she has passion. Or something like that.

I am trying to avoid spoilers as best I can, so I will cut back on the detail. Basically, the characters were cartoonish, and nothing really very interesting happened, which is to say interesting things happened, but they were always undone with Nina suddenly waking up from some vision and realizing none of it had happened. This is especially disappointing when it comes to her interactions with the ‘black swan’, since basically every interesting thing that happens in the relationship turns out to be imagined by Nina. I think in the end the other girl hardly knows who she is / was trying to be nice to her, and Nina just pushes her away because, well, she is something like a  paranoid schizophrenic.

I was also frustrated by a tendency to imitate the ballet, which is fair enough but not only did they parallel the events of the ballet, but they basically pointed it out (‘YOU are the WHITE SWAN’, etc) multiple times throughout the movie, which really took me out of the events and reminded me I was watching a film about Swan Lake. It killed any sense of immersion remaining after the 7th or 8th ‘just kidding!’ the movie threw at me.

Basically, I would skip it if it was not the Big Movie of the awards season. So, go see it but be well-warned that it has several flaws, especially if you agree that ‘ballerinas are crazy!!’ isn’t enough of an explanation to buy into a movie about a grown woman wandering around being terrified that she is turning into a bird.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Black Swan Review

  1. I wanted to love Black Swan. It sounded so promising in the reviews and interviews. But I was disappointed in the end. I felt like Nina started out too crazy, then didn’t get crazy enough. There was too much commitment to creating a modern take on the Swan Lake story, and not enough commitment to character development. I really liked the visuals, but the characters just left me really frustrated. This was an awesome cast, and they did well with what they had to work with, but there just wasn’t enough thought put into their motivations or backgrounds. How did Nina ever survive high school? Was she homeschooled? What happened to her dad? Why is her mom a complete psycho and how on earth do they pay the rent? (We live with a professional dancer – it is a profession that seems to pay little more than working at McDonald’s most of the time.)

    Also, Lily didn’t work well for me as her “black swan” either. Outside of her Hollywood stereotype bad behavior, she seemed like the nicest and most sane person in the movie. Nina was kind of a crazy bitch.