I’ve soured on Darren Aronofsky heavily over the years: I remember when I first saw Requiem for a Dream and initially I thought that it was an emotionally draining experience and now it only ever manages to ring me as exploitative of its own characters’ misery at the hands of an agreeable message. But this was not something I found to be exclusive towards said film, because Black Swan, which may very well be his worst film yet, only manages to rub me in the wrong way for similar reasons. But for the many shortcomings of Requiem for a Dream, it never felt condescending in the way that Black Swan was, among many reasons it has only ever managed to leave such a bitter taste in my mouth. It seems so insistent that perfection leads to equally perfect art, and it’s a product so explicitly mechanical its own message only falls down upon itself and the one thought that came to my mind after finishing up read: “this is why I hate Darren Aronofsky.”
Natalie Portman stars as Nina, the lead dancer for Swan Lake. In order to achieve artistic perfection, this also means it will cost her own sanity and even turn her own role much like that of Odile, the Black Swan – just as she finds her own life beginning to parallel that of Swan Lake while not being a literal follow beat by beat. To try my best to avoid comparing Black Swan to films that have already handled similar stories better (The Red Shoes and Perfect Blue, the latter of which Aronofsky himself had purchased the rights for in order to recreate a scene in Requiem for a Dream), I’ll get it out of the way that Black Swan is already telling a story that has been done before, which is the least of my own problems with it. Rather instead, my immense dislike of Black Swan lies within how it tells what we’ve already seen before as it only comes off as needlessly exploitative of her own misery in favour of “artistic perfection.”
This sort of pessimism was one thing that has always stuck out most from my own viewing of Requiem for a Dream. Darren Aronofsky relishes in it by placing so much on the surface, and the most aggravating aspect of said film came from how it further pushes down upon an agreeable message without expanding on it by growing increasingly worse on the surface. In Black Swan‘s scenario, it seems to be the same for presenting Nina’s misery of working within the world of dancing, where she’s forced to grow into the sort of person that she is in order to achieve “artistic perfection,” which is where Aronofsky loses subtlety with the narrative, for he’s always played upon melodrama like a sledgehammer – something that I’d also find myself appreciating more if this film weren’t taking itself as seriously as it was. By Aronofsky’s lens, it only believes in misery and it’s an extremely oppressive one at that.
Among many more of its own exploits, Nina’s forced sexual growth as a result of her own instructor as played by Vincent Cassel also brings up another one of it’s biggest faults. There’s an uncomfortable male gaze coming in with every minute of the interactions between Lily and Nina, for their own homosexuality feels portrayed as a fantasy for the outside as opposed to a part of themselves. But how Black Swan goes away with handling its idea of duality is perhaps the most troubling aspect, because it revels in another overused trope from horror movies: split personalities. But considering how many times it shifts between identities without setting a distinguished tone for each, it all feels like worthless meandering. Everything that the film wants to be feels present on the surface, tossed out in favour of another idea, then brought back at the last minute: there’s no thought coming forth as opposed to broad self-indulgence.
If Natalie Portman were even any good in Black Swan, then I’d be convinced that a film destroying “artistic perfection” truly is baked out to be the way it is, but coming back to the artificiality of the film’s narrative, most of the cast only strikes me as mechanical. Perhaps part of this comes from me not being a fan of Natalie Portman, but her hallucinatory performance only strikes me as overdone – like a bad mix of melodrama and horror tropes. The whole cast feels so mechanical, almost as much as the dancing itself, but that adds more to why I find Black Swan so ingenuine – it just seems to pride itself on aggressiveness in the same manner that Aronofsky had went on to pride himself on appearing more intelligent than it actually is, for it’s all just bare bones we see. Aronofsky doesn’t blur the line between a hallucination and reality, and as a result the final reveal only feels anticlimactic.
Sometimes I wish I was able to appreciate Darren Aronofsky the way I know many of my peers do, but other than The Wrestler and The Fountain he’s only seemed to let me down with every film after another. I won’t deny that he’s good at what he does, and I see why these films carry the appeal they do – but I just find Black Swan so unpleasant an experience even to think about. There’s no subtlety present in Black Swan, but at the same time I don’t see much point when I know already I recognize so much of it as derivative of many other films that have handled a similar outlining better – for they don’t indulge in the needless exploitation that Black Swan does. It all feels so sleazy in the sense that Brian De Palma was, although without being any bit as fun or as interesting – because the lack of subtlety only shows an evident lack of self-reflexivity on Darren Aronofsky’s part, for it’s all kept on the surface. I suppose this indulgence would have its appeal for some, but clearly not me.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Fox.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin
Produced by Scott Franklin, Ari Handel, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Brian Oliver
Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
Release Year: 2010
Running Time: 108 minutes