Black Swan Weekend
December 2- Review of the film by Louis Allred
December 3- Interviews with Mila Kunis, and the film’s writers & choreographers
December 4- Interviews with Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky

Both interviews will be conducted by Obed Medina


By Louis Allred

Darren Aronofsky is a director back on the upswing. He initially made a huge splash in the indie world in the late 90s with π, and followed it up with Requiem For a Dream (both excellent movies). The critical success of those films gave him the clearance to make the ambitious The Fountain, which unfortunately met with little critical love (though it has fans who defend it to this day). After a few years away from the camera, he returned with The Wrestler, which may have been as much of a comeback for him as it was for star Mickey Rourke. In an odd bit of news, he was recently announced as the director of the sequel to X-Men Origins: Wolverine (a movie no one needed). And amidst all of this, his highly anticipated new film Black Swan has been touring the festival circuit, racking up miles of praise for both itself and its star, Natalie Portman.

Unfortunately, having seen the film, I can’t share that sentiment.

The plot is simple enough: Portman plays Nina, a dedicated ballet dancer. She lives with her mom (Barbara Hershey), also a dancer, who gave up her own career to support Nina’s dancing. The director of her troupe (Vincent Cassel) decides to shake things up with the opening of their new season, and casts aside prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) in favor of Nina as the star of his new production of Swan Lake. He’s confident Nina can handle the role of the White Swan, but feels she’s too restrained to also play its doppelganger, the Black Swan. As she works toward loosening up, as the director wants, the pressure of being the new star takes its toll on Nina. She fights against catty backstage comments and jealousy, as well as her rival, Lily (Mila Kunis), who seems intent on taking over her role. But, given her constant hallucinations and paranoia, maybe Nina is just dreaming it all up.

Part of the problem with Black Swan is its simplicity, oddly enough. In Nina, we have someone overly sheltered and fragile (due mostly to her domineering mother). But we don’t get to see much of exactly why she’s like that. I’m no fan of being hammered over the head with backstory, but in this case, a little more exposition would be helpful. We see intriguing things with Nina’s character, like that she scratches herself bloody in her sleep. And something like that would be a great way to segue into discussing her past and how her relationship with her mother got so damaged, but we never cross that threshold. All we get are repeated scenes where her mother finds that Nina’s scratched herself again, and she freaks out, which freaks Nina out, and so forth. We see character traits and actions over and over again, but we never go deeper.

This lack of context makes it hard to sympathize with any of the characters, especially Nina. Such a frail, timid character seems like a shoo-in to feel sympathy toward, but after a while, she just became shrill and annoying. Any time she received criticism from the troupe’s director, she would turn into a wobbly mess, which makes me wonder how she ever got so far in such a cutthroat, demanding field. Aronofsky’s choices may be mainly to blame for the way her character comes off, but for all the praise Portman received for her role, her acting is not all that impressive in the film. Similar things can be said about the rest of the principals. Hershey starts off well, but veers into campy psychosis later on. Cassel is fine, but his character’s sexual overtures became a bit ridiculous. (“Your homework tonight,” he tells Nina early on, “is to touch yourself.” This is supposed to get her loosened up to play the Black Swan, I guess.) Ryder’s role is a glorified cameo, playing the alcoholic has-been with abandon, if not subtlety.

The surprise in the film is Kunis. As Nina’s rival Lily, she is the Black Swan to Nina’s White Swan. (By the way, in almost every scene, Nina is dressed in white, and Lily in black. This was before I got my new glasses, and I could still see the symbolism a mile away.) Where Nina is restrained and scared, Lily is loose and open to new experiences. However, Kunis’ performance grounds the character, making Lily more like an actual person than an archetype. She gets some of the best lines in the film, and is the one character I felt was grounded and realistic. With the inevitable Oscar push Black Swan will receive, I hope Kunis doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. I don’t know if she deserves a Supporting Actress nomination yet, but the producers should at least try for it.

Black Swan’s ultimate crime, though, is that it wants to be a high-minded psychological thriller, but relies too often on cheap horror-movie scares. Every five minutes or so, Nina walks down a hall, or turns a corner, and BOO! something pops into frame. I don’t fault a filmmaker for wanting to use that technique once in a while to shock the audience, but halfway through the film, you expect that in every scene, and you just get numb to it. “Oh, someone will be standing there when she turns the lights on. CALLED IT.”

If I had to sum it up, the problem with Black Swan is that everything is done a bit too much. The characters are a bit too broad. The scares are a bit too cheap. The story is a bit too vague. The musical stings are a bit too loud. What really could have been a fantastic story gets caught up in its metaphors and gimmicks, when it could have developed the plot and characters a bit further to provide us with more to chew on. For all its artistic flourishes and visual beauty (the ballet scenes are done well, and Matthew Libatique’s handheld cinematography gets us close to the dancing in a unique way), Black Swan is, at its heart, a standard-issue backstage drama about the cost of fame. There’s nothing wrong with anyone telling that kind of story, but when the film was over, I didn’t walk away with anything new.

I seem to be in the minority with my opinion, so we’ll see how it fares come Oscar time. But for all its promise, I can’t really recommend Black Swan.