I really wanted to love Black Swan. I’m a big fan of Darren Aronofsky – I think The Fountain and The Wrestler are great, exciting works of art, about as different from each other as possible, but still concerned with the same themes of obsession and mortality.
Aronofsky is something of a rarity in modern Hollywood; there’s little to no ironic distance in his films. He’s always sincere, and works with a heightened emotional palette, which is very much on display in his latest film, a psychodrama set in the world of ballet. The descriptors attached to the film by reviewers – “hysterical”, “melodramatic” – are usually meant as disparagements, but the critical response has been solidly positive. My opinion, however, isn’t nearly as nailed down.
My first issue was with the quality of the picture. Maybe it’s because we were sat in the front row (tickets went fast), but the overall graininess of the cinematography was incredibly distracting. I’m not an agitator for pristine-looking films – I loved the use of digital photography in Michael Mann’s most recent features – but Black Swan looked like it was shot on a cameraphone. It’s a shame, because Matthew Libatique’s claustrophobic, restless cinematography is a great achievement, and helps to heighten the mood of the film.
Maybe heightening is an understatement – the film starts at fever pitch and goes up from there. The camera work pulls us in hard on the faces of the characters, inviting us to study each part of their expressions. The sound design blasts the audience with Clint Mansell’s Tchaikovsky-inspired score at terrifying volume. The special effects are creepy, and seamlessly integrated into the film. Every gigantic emotional outburst is topped by another, and another, until gasps and laughs from the audience were in equal proportion. This profile of Aronofsky has a good description:
The laughs greeting Black Swan are complex. Two parts tension relief to one part flabbergast (with a few snickers at the film’s thick impasto of cliché […]), they finally settle into a stupefied gonzo admiration for the spectacle of the thing.
But in the end, I’m left wondering if this damages the film as much as defining it. Natalie Portman spends so much time as a passive victim, simply reacting with the same tearful, wounded-bird expression to everything, that it becomes hard to engage with her struggle for artistic perfection. And beyond her, the characters that aren’t ciphers are unappealing instead – see Barbara Hershey’s demonic mother, or Vincent Cassell’s sexed-up, demanding martinet. (In fact, I most felt sorry for Mila Kunis’ character – you fly across the country to take a new job, befriend the obvious outcast of the company, and get mixed up in a febrile world of madness and hallucinations.) And Aronofsky’s endless succession of rug-pulling moments also makes it hard to invest ourselves in the story, as nearly every onscreen moment of significance is revealed to be imaginary.
But I can’t dismiss the film entirely. It has big flaws, or at least big things that didn’t work for me, but days later I’m still turning it over, thinking about melodrama as a genre, the traditional “women’s picture”, and whether it’s insultingly reductive or boldly refreshing to produce such a female-centred portrayal of mental breakdown.
In the end, Black Swan is a frustrating, ambitious mess. It’s not a film I can unambiguously praise, but absolutely not one I can dismiss either. It refuses to settle down in my mind. It refuses to be categorised. It’s a challenge. And that, in itself, is something admirable.