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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Frenzy on the Wall: Black Swan

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Natalie Portman gives the performance of the year in Black Swan, and the film itself is a masterpiece.

I’m an enormous fan of Darren Aronofsky’s work, and I think he’s one of the true visionaries in cinema. His first three feature-length films — Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain — are all masterpieces. I was not a big fan of The Wrestler, which I found to be wildly over-praised. I thought it was a fine film, sure, but it wasn’t reaching for the same heights that Aronofsky’s previous films had and I thought that it suffered from a lack of dramatic momentum – in other words, I didn’t find myself propelled forward by the story.

In films like that, it’s important for the characters to be interesting enough that their arcs are what carries us and I found the main character to be someone I’ve seen way too many times in similar films. Randy “The Ram” was just another screwed-up fading sports star and I didn’t find Mickey Rourke’s portrayal to be particularly interesting except as a study of Rourke’s own demons, which I don’t find too enthralling.

I had been told that Black Swan had essentially the same narrative arc as The Wrestler, but set in the world of ballet instead of wrestling; since I wasn’t wild about The Wrestler, it was with some trepidation that I went into Black Swan. Well, I will say that it’s an accurate enough assessment – the films surely contain the same element of a character who is willing to go to extreme lengths for their craft, even harming themselves. While Randy destroys his body by injecting steroids, Black Swan’s Nina starves herself.

But my fear turned out to be unfounded because while there are many similarities between the two films, Black Swan is a near-masterpiece that out-classes and out-shines The Wrestler in every possible way.

It’s funny that Aronofsky made a film about death – which we view as ugly and disturbing – and made it beautiful with The Fountain. Now with Black Swan, he’s made a film about ballet – something we all view as being beautiful – and made it grotesque. There’s no doubt about it, this is a horror film that takes place in two settings: New York City and in the mind of the main character. Sometimes those settings merge into one and the result is both captivating and cringe-inducing.

It’s nearly impossible to discuss Black Swan without discussing the lead performance by Natalie Portman. I don’t want to sound too hyperbolic, but with just a few weeks left in the year and only a few more movies left for me to see, I don’t think there’s a very good chance that there is another performance – male or female, supporting or lead – that will match Portman’s. It’s true that she was lucky enough to be gifted with what is the role of a lifetime, but what she brings to the role – the way she speaks and carries herself – goes way beyond what is on the page. This is the performance of the year.

Nina is a character who is beyond fragile, always seconds away from tears; there is a deep chasm in her soul that she tries to fill by pleasing everyone around her. She is desperate to achieve perfection and that diligence comes with a price. But what Portman does is take the idea of that character to its logical extreme; basically, she makes Nina a soft-spoken awkward child who is trying so hard that it’s almost off-putting. We care deeply for her because the film forces us to identify with her (more on that later), but also because she is so deeply troubled and frail that we want her to somehow get better. But, the truth of the matter is that if we met this person in real life, we would try to avoid her because she’s “weird.”

However, Portman is so engaging and captivating that we try to sympathize with her oddities and instead of seeing that her slavish devotion to this craft will ultimately hurt her, we root for her to succeed because we know that’s what she wants. Our relationship to her winds up being that of a parent of a depressed child: we just want her to be happy, even if it’s only for a moment. Portman enables us to feel this way by the way she moves, the way she covers herself or avoids eye contact, never comfortable in any situation. Even when she dances, she seems close to collapse, because she gives everything to it. In a way, it reminded me of every great artist we’ve ever heard of who views their art as a duty more than a passion, whose craft actually hurts them – Vincent Van Gogh, Breece D’J Pancake, David Foster Wallace, the list is endless.

I didn’t even mention the fact that Portman underwent a ridiculously daunting task of losing weight (and she didn’t have that much to lose to begin with) and spending months training hours a day in order to become a realistic ballerina. I ordinarily wouldn’t care about whether someone lost weight or trained hard because these are things that rarely give us tangible results on-screen in terms of performance. But with this film, it is crucial for us to believe that Natalie Portman’s character is a real ballet dancer and we definitely buy it.

But it’s not just Portman who shines in the film. In fact, she reminded me of a great athlete who makes her teammates better because all of the other actors in the film are reactive to her and they all step up their games. Mila Kunis deserves a great deal of credit, bringing vitality to the film with Lily, a character who oozes sexuality on all those around her. She is there to represent the “other” to Portman’s character, to be her opposite as well as her doppelganger and in order for that to work, Kunis has to be equally as convincing and she nails it.

Vincent Cassel as the Balanchine-esque director of the company and Barbara Hershey as Portman’s stress-inducing, infantilizing mother are also two sides of the same coin. They both cause pain in the life of Nina, but they are both trying to get her to be all that she can be, using different means. Cassel’s character wants Nina to embrace her own darkness while Hershey’s character feels that being as “perfect” as possible will give her the joy that she never had. And then there’s Winona Ryder as the woman that Nina is fated to become if she actually does succeed.

I was impressed by a lot of the decisions that Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique made in order to give us that controlled chaos that permeates ever frame of the film. Early on, we get a lot of shots of the back of Nina’s head as she walks – a neat reversal of a technique they used in Aronofsky’s earlier films, where the camera was fastened to the actor and focused on their faces while they walked – and it gives us the clue that we’re going to be seeing everything from Nina’s warped perspective. It reminded me a bit of Gaspar Noe’s work in Enter the Void where whole sections of the film are from the perspective of a character and we see the backs of their heads; in fact, I wonder if Noe was an influence on Aronofsky as he was making the film since there’s another scene set in a nightclub that uses strobe lights in a way that feels exactly like Noe’s short film, We Fuck Alone.

There is an unhinged quality to the whole film, where it’s uncertain what is real and what is not that is combined with a hyper-realism stemming from the use of hand-held cameras. It’s a technique that leaves us slightly dazed yet also invested in what happens to Nina because we are never aware of when we “leave” the real world and enter Nina’s head.

There have been a lot of comparison made by critics between this film and early Polanski films, especially Repulsion, but the film that was constantly on my mind as I watched Black Swan was Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Both films vacillate back and forth between dream and reality without giving many clues to the audience about which is which. And in both films, figuring out what exactly is real or not real is completely besides the point. What matters is not what parts exist or don’t exist because in Nina’s head, it’s all the same.

The other thing that reminded me of Eyes Wide Shut was this: years before the film came out, all anybody knew about Eyes Wide Shut was that it was called a “psycho-sexual thriller.” I don’t know about you, but I think that perfectly describes the genre that Black Swan is operating in. They both take in and around New York City, deal with dreams, and show us different milieus – both the high and low-end of New York real estate especially.

And the film doesn’t shy away from its sex, showing us fairly graphic depictions of vigorous masturbation and cunnilingus, even going so far as to have the person performing the act wipe their face afterward. I admired this quality a great deal because I feel like a lot of lesser films would have pulled back, shying away from aspects of sex that might make a viewer uncomfortable. But the goal of the film is precisely that: to make the viewer uneasy.

I’ve being trying to speak about this film without going into too much detail about what actually happens for two reasons: 1) I don’t want to spoil it for those viewers who don’t have a clue what they are in for and 2) it’s really not a film about what happens in the traditional sense. This is a film where what happens is really less important than how it happens. The ending of the film, in particular, goes to a really strange place that would sound ridiculous if described but as we’re watching it, we are totally in it and believe every second of it.

So many films these days are meant to be seen and then disposed of, quickly disappearing from you mind in the days that follow. In the few days that have passed since my initial viewing of Black Swan – with an absolutely packed house in Union Square that audibly gasped and laughed like any other horror film – it has grown in my estimation. I have only seen two masterpieces of cinema in 2010, with two weeks to go, and Black Swan is one of them.

(P.S. I have to admit to being disappointed that Aronofsky will be following up this work of art with the comic book film sequel to Wolverine, but I suppose I have to understand that he’d like to make some money from this whole film directing gig; I can’t imagine his first five films have been all that lucrative for him. But why Wolverine? Can’t he pick a project where he might be able to bring his auteurist nature to?

The problem with comic book films is that they have to remain true to their source material or the fanboys will revolt and I don’t want Aronofsky to have to color inside the lines. But hopefully he’ll make something closer to X-Men 2 than the first Wolverine film; even so, I’m fairly confident it will be nowhere close to Black Swan.)

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14 Responses to “Frenzy on the Wall: Black Swan”

  1. YND says:

    If you haven’t already, check out the films of the Dardenne brothers (ROSETTA, THE SON, L’ENFANT, etc.) — their following-behind style of shooting seems like a clear model for Aronofsky’s aesthetic in both THE WRESTLER and BLACK SWAN.

  2. Noah Forrest says:

    YND, I’m very familiar with the Dardennes, but I think their style applies more to THE WRESTLER than BLACK SWAN. The latter has the hand-held style of the former, but the strobe-light sequence cemented the Noe comparison for me. But I’m sure Aronofsky was aware of the Dardennes when making both films and they must have been one of the many influences.

  3. Robert H. says:

    I have to be honest, I didn’t care for Black Swan much at all. I found it way too campy and lewd to be taken seriously (which it cleary wanted me to), and its themes too stale and fleeting. And Natalie Portman’s performance as far as I’m concerned has reached DiCaprio-levels of undeserved hyperbole.

    It’s interesting that you would cite The Wrestler as Aronofsky’s weakest film, because I thought that it was the one time (certain moments of The Fountain excepted) that the director let a film *breathe* for once instead of pummeling his characters, and, by extension, the audience with relentless technique. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for directorial flair, but in the case of Black Swan this style was so clinical and overstated that it ended up at the expense of emotional connection with the material.

    What’s worse is that such an approach hinders an already musty set of cliches (ballet as a punishing discipline, sexual awakening via lesbianism, artistry as a road to insanity, parent desires to live vicariously through their offspring, etc.), so instead of seeing an imaginative vision I saw a director simply showing off on the same old story. And for the most part the technique wasn’t that impressive. Exaggerated sound cues, tired mirror stunts, and worst of all, cheap “shock” cuts are far beneath a director of his talents.

    None of the characters were that interesting to me. I’ve already mentioned the mother, but she’s not any less unique than the lustful creep instructor (of course he’s lustful…he’s French!) or the conniving “best friend.” Even Nina herself is an almost entirely reactive character. Even as she was “seizing her moment,” Aronofsky seemed pathologically bent on pinning her under a parade of horrors, and not allow her to develop on her own terms.

    But even a character like that can be saved by a good performance, and oh boy did I hear praise for Natalie Portman. Unfortunately, while many saw “career-best,” I saw “epitome of her limited ability.” Now, Portman is a good actress, but she’s not a great one. She was trying so damn hard in this film for us to notice the pains she goes through (to be fair, her dancing technique isn’t terrible, but not very polished either) that I never saw her as a convincing Nina, or even a convincing ballerina. I saw Natalie Portman trying to give a Performance For The Ages, and in doing so, fails to hit any real emotional register. Predictably, she’s the front-runner for Best Actress, since the Oscars frequently confuse “Best” with “Most Obvious.”

    Sorry if I sound like a grouch. To be fair, the film does have striking visuals (Matthew Libatique deserves every cinematography award coming to him) and interesting moments, but Black Swan just didn’t work for me.

  4. bob says:

    so which is it, a masterpiece or a near-masterpiece?

  5. Rusty says:

    Just saw this tonight. My buddy thought it tedious. I found it looney, albeit extremely well-made looney. I pretty much agree with what Robert H. says above re: plotting. I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I’ll just say that Nina doesn’t change so much throughout the movie as just become more of the same. That’s not very compelling to me. Portman worked hard but she isn’t an inspired actress so I couldn’t lose myself in her performance. (However, those closeups throughout the ballet were far and away great moments, so I happily give her that.) But I kept waiting for those great transcendent moments and I just didn’t see them from her. Loved Mila Kunis, though! Thematically speaking, the movie trades in hoary cliches and never delves deeply into Nina’s issues. Maybe that’s because it’s a horror film, and maybe that’s why Aronofsky will actually do a great job on Wolverine 2–he convinces you you are seeing greatness when you really aren’t.

  6. I went with a friend and we experienced exactly the film Noah describes. We were actually huddling together and cringing in our seats. This is movie that gets in your face and stays there. The narrative drive is propulsive. When I realized the story arc was coming to an end, I felt like this was the shortest movie ever made. That was when I realized my entire body had been clenched through the whole thing.

    It most definitely is a masterpiece.

  7. always seconds away from tears… thats a good line i like that paragraph

  8. mutinyco says:

    The only comparison between BS and EWS, is that one dramatized an artist whose quest for perfection kills her, the other was made by an artist whose quest for perfection killed him in real life.

  9. Martin Pal says:

    Did we see the same film, Noah? I thought parts of this film bordered on ridiculously bad. I’m going to agree with Robert H.:

    “I didn’t care for Black Swan much at all. I found it way too campy and lewd to be taken seriously (which it cleary wanted me to), and its themes too stale and fleeting. And Natalie Portman’s performance as far as I’m concerned has reached DiCaprio-levels of undeserved hyperbole.”

  10. rebecca c says:

    Noah – great review! You pointed out so many film techniques that I wouldn’t have noticed. Interesting comparison to Repulsion although not sure I agree. Good food for thought. In the end I think Robert H’s comments nail how I ultimately feel about the film. So what is the movie of 2010? Social Network (aka Facebook movie) or Black Swan….we know which is more emotionally manipulative but which will stand the test of time?


  11. Noah Forrest says:

    Mutiny, you don’t see any comparisons between Black Swan and EWS? How about the fact that almost every major character in Black Swan reacts to Natalie Portman sexually, just as almost every character in Eyes Wide Shut reacts to Tom Cruise sexually?

    Rebecca, I think the film of the year – so far – is The Social Network without a doubt. I think it’s an instant classic that will work well as a time capsule for many years to come. I think people get too hung up on the “Facebook” part of it because it’s really the MacGuffin of the movie. Replace “Facebook” with any invention and it would still be the same movie. Of course, Facebook is especially loaded and every time anyone mentions “friend” in the film, it has a double meaning because of the way Facebook has altered our perception of what it means to be a “friend” to someone. Still, as much as I liked Black Swan, I don’t think it’s in the same league as The Social Network.

  12. Clayton says:

    What was the other masterpiece you saw this year?

  13. Terry F. says:

    Was the other masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels? Little Fockers? Yogi Bear? Inquiring minds want to know.

  14. Lawrence A. says:

    Just saw BS this afternoon and there were several chuckles in the audience at some parts of the story. I love the ballet and know several dancers but none that approach these characters. Vincent Cassel was great but the rest of effort was a strange admixture of overacting and stagey nonsense. Pity that as the subject matter is very fertile ground for a marvelous story.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon