Anyone who has seen a film by Darren Aronofsky is not likely to describe it as a completely pleasurable experience. My first experience with Aronofsky’s work was seeing Requiem for a Dream on the big screen. It was good – but I avoided it for the next two years because of its intensity.
For Aronofsky is it not enough to show us the hardships of a protagonist. He has to actually make us feel the experiences of our protagonists. In Black Swan Aronofsky continues to force us to suffer with our onscreen hero – and this time around you’ll be hard pressed to figure out why you should care.
Natalie Portman stars as frigid ballerina Nina, who desperately wants the part of the Swan Queen–so desperately that she begins mentally collapsing.
Aronofsky has proven himself a master of film techniques that will sucker punch you viscerally/mentally. Just like the surreal horrors of Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream, Nina’s visions leave you looking for a blankie to hide behind. Aronofsky’s attention to painful details (the process of preparing ballet slippers; sores on Nina’s hands) add a good sting to this contribution to the psychological horror genre.
This is all well and good, but by the end of the film all you have left for the character is a shrug. Despite see the pressure and the enveloping madness, we don’t understand Nina’s surliness to those around her, and halfway through we resent her for it. The resentment metastasizes and becomes indifference.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
By the time she dies, our sympathy – or any feeling for her at all – has already withered away and joined her fate. Cuts to black, credits roll. The emptiness you’re feeling inside is that “So what?” feeling.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT OVER
From Pi to The Wrestler, and even the divisive The Fountain, I have always been a fan of Aronofsky’s work. I’m even a fan of what he is doing in Black Swan: he’s a skilled craftsman and even though some of the scares are so surreal they’re unintentionally silly, I like the way he leads Black Swan.
But there’s little of Nina to engage with – a peril of focusing on someone seriously crazy. In all of Aronofsky’s other films, the audience looks at the poor insects stuck in the spiderwebs of (sometimes) their own making, and they think, “How sad.” Nina doesn’t give us anything to feel sad about. She’s literally just “a crazy bitch*,” which nullifies any positive or negative sentiment concerning her fate.**
I’m always glad to see another film by Aronofsky get made and Black Swan was a creepy experience. It is, however, something that feels empty when the curtain falls.
*She’s seeing things (crazy) and she’s inexplicably rude to everyone (bitch).
**Which, who knows, could be Aronofsky’s whole point: Nina does become the Black Swan – and no one likes the Black Swan, so feeling indifferent at the end is intended. With Aronofsky at the helm I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of such an intention.
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I disagree that we jump into the story with Nina being incredibly crazy. The set design of the apartment, especially her room give us the background to connect her story to her mother and all the disappointments both have had. Would I have liked another 20 minutes of Nina’s backstory? Yes. But it may have stalled the film’s story somewhat.
I like that Aronofsky took us right into the madness this time. I thought it a bold choice. That said, nice article!
After talking about this film all break I would put it another way: it’s an amazing film, but it didn’t have the dramatic payoff of previous Aronofsky films.
Yay! After reading all sorts of positivity about this film, I’m relieved to read your review. The over-psychology of the film strips it of real characters. And the clanging-cow-bell symbolism gave me a headache long before it hit me over the head at the end.
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