Black Swan: The Review

Just came back from seeing Black Swan and feeling fairly let down. In my opinion, a few edits--we're talking seconds worth of film--could have rendered it phenomenal. Unfortunately some of the problem seconds were those at the very end. (Possible spoilers ahead, I don't really know what I'm going to say.) Now, first of all, I understand that the plot of the movie was supposed to loosely revolve around the plot of Swan Lake; that the characters who were in the movie in the process of preparing for and putting on this work were also, to a certain extent, acting out the roles in their lives. I understand that an argument could have been made for the film ending the way that it did based on the idea that the entire thing was a modern take on the ballet. The thing is, though, I don't care. Based purely on its own merits, it was incredibly lame, especially considering it had everything it needed to succeed:  solid acting, great mix of humor and pathos, character complexity, etc. It was almost as if the director decided to build around the structure of the ballet but then did not allow the film to be (appropriately) carried away by the incredible details, instead opting to keep the structure firmly in place and consequently allowing it to devolve into something dangerously close to self-parody.

At various points in the film the ballet director (Vincent Cassel) stresses extensively to Nina (Natalie Portman), who has been cast in the role of “swan queen” (both black swan and white swan, in his version of Swan Lake), that she is already perfect in the role of the white swan but that in order to become the black swan she must learn to “let herself go.” He employs this as an excuse for unwanted sexual advances and cites Lily (Mila Kunis) as an example of the type of free and unafraid seductress he wants her to emulate. Lily later ends up being cast as Nina's alternate, one event in a series of many that could suggest that everyone in Nina's life may be trying to prevent her from performing in the show. Basically, the action surrounding Nina can be read in one of two ways or any combination of these two (stress on the latter here): We can decide to assume Nina is primarily a victim of her environment and that her mother is overbearing to the point of being sick and obsessed, that her director is using the role of swan queen to manipulate her sexually, that Lily is determined--under the guise of getting Nina to loosen up--to trick her into losing focus so she can sweep in and steal her role. The other option, if there are only two, is to see Nina as being a delusional narcissist who thinks everyone around her is conspiring against her and whose mind supplies whatever details necessary to support this delusion. Of course, we are likely given to suspect it isn't this simple. The film early on is sensitive to this possibility, and we are left to imagine that the pressure put on Nina by others at some point causes her to begin to crack. We just can't pinpoint exactly when this begins to happen, or to what degree, because we are inside Nina's mind the entire time. What we experience while there is a brilliant play of extremes (*cough*blackandwhite*cough*) undercut by stray bursts of humanity in moments of oddness and humor that are just as brilliant. As the plot picks up speed, the film begins a downward spiral into madness/fantasy, and relies more heavily on visual effects than any sort of coherent storyline.

REAL SPOILERS NOW (But go see it, do. There is too much great stuff to miss out on just because it ends poorly. It was obviously labored over extensively by cast, director, and crew. Otherwise it wouldn't have been so disappointing. And if you are thinking about just seeing it for the lesbian sex, you have my blessing, but it is not all that impressive. Thirty seconds, if even, and not very graphic. Well done for its place in the film, though, and that is something else I can commend, making a film with a lesbian sex scene and not exploiting it.)

As Cassel's character describes the self-destruction/suicide of the white swan as being a path to freedom, we as the audience are now free to watch what is happening without having to worry about whether it is real or not. After having lost her nerve in performing the initial part of the white swan, Nina finds Lily in her dressing room and stabs her with a shard of glass from a mirror after smashing her into it. She hides Lily's body and goes back out on stage to dance her part as a fully realized black swan. Shortly thereafter she realizes that she has actually stabbed herself, that Lily is alive and unharmed, and that she now has to return to dance her final part as white swan. At the end of the performance, she acts out her “suicide,” falling onto the mattress onstage that has been prepared for her. Her co-stars and director gather around her, applauding, until they realize that she has actually stabbed herself. The director yells to call for help and asks Nina what she did to which she replies that she was perfect. White screen. Roll credits.

The concept is simple. Nina is the white swan, the women trapped in a swan's body, who kills herself to find freedom when she realizes that is the only way to achieve it. The director, is the uh, evil dude who casts the spell (fuck it, I'm not a professional reviewer) and also at the same time the guy who might be able to save her. Lily is the black swan, who upsets Nina's balance and possibly has a more intimate relationship with the director than Nina initially realizes. In any case, there is a sense of betrayal, etc.  So in order to stick by an adaptation of sorts Nina has to (in a sense) find freedom by (in a sense) destroying herself. Okay. But she doesn't have to actually physically destroy herself, and even if, for some reason, she does, that doesn't have to be the focus of the story. In fact, it shouldn't be, because according to the director the white swan finds freedom in destroying herself, not perfection, and I feel very strongly that the movie should have ended with a portrayal of that freedom, even if it was also a portrayal of its costs. As an audience member I felt that sense of freedom up until the very end when she said that bullshit about being perfect and the screen went white, looping us very cleverly back to the concept of Nina's basic and indestructible innocence (maybe????????). The ending doesn't, of course, really explain anything, so it manages to be annoyingly elusive while still destroying all of the ambiguity that could have actually been intriguing. So like I was saying about self-parody. The film doesn't want to lose itself to transformation, so it takes a nosedive and gains nothing in return. If it had ended ten seconds sooner this all could have been avoided.

To further expound upon the ending, those final ten seconds made an otherwise brilliant movie essentially about how kooky the main character was and how thoroughly she had cracked, even while nearly everything else seemed to suggest that this is totally unfitting. There is a small reference early on to Nina's desire to be “perfect.” The director says in response to this desire that being perfect isn't just about being meticulous, etc., it's also about letting yourself go. This was the only part of the movie where I might have had slight misgivings about where it was headed, because I would have greatly preferred it if he had said something along the lines of, “It's not ABOUT being perfect, it's ABOUT letting yourself go.” This small detail sort of screws everything because it serves to justify (or attempts to justify) not just the ending but the idea that it's okay to lead us, the audience, into the dangerous spinning hurricane of the black swan's world and then snap us out of it as if by magic, not allowing us to reap the fruits of our journey or even settle in a place where we can properly reflect on it. However, there is another scene in which the idea of being “perfect” is mentioned. In this scene, Nina visits Beth (the aging ballerina she has basically replaced in the company, played by Winona Ryder) in the hospital following an accident Beth may have inflicted on herself on purpose. While there, Nina returns several items she had earlier stolen from Beth's dressing room (perfume, makeup, earrings) in acts of ostensible idol worship. When Beth becomes angry at the idea that Nina took her things, Nina explains herself by saying “I just wanted to be perfect.” (Or something along those lines, I'm not sure.) To which Beth replies that she, Beth, is NOT perfect. This scene implies to me that, however screwed Nina is in the brain department at this stage, she no longer WANTS to be perfect, or no longer wants to JUST be perfect. This is an important point of character development that just gets away somehow.

I spent the duration of the movie in Nina's head, which is the only reliable reality in the movie. We KNOW that she is at least partially delusional, but I was still interested in what she was going to do with the elements of her thought she had control over, and what was going to HAPPEN within the world of her mind. Regardless of what is real and what is imagined, we watch her make choices and change as a character. We are up with her right until we suddenly no longer are, when we are suddenly watching her lying on a mattress bleeding to death and seeing her from the point of view of others, who, judging from their roles thus far, are not qualified to tell us anything about her. And that really sort of screws us, as the audience.  And it causes the title to make no sense, because in this scenario what effect does the black swan (whether Nina or Lily) really have on anything, or anyone, and how important could she possibly be?

END SPOILERS AND REVIEW

So, two scathing reviews of drastically different movies.  What the hell kind of blog is this?

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