Thursday, December 30, 2010

Natalie Portman goes down in Darren Aronofsky's misogynist fever dream.

I knew Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan was going to be bad. It's about an art form that basically operates over his head (in effect ballet is his antithesis) - and I didn't expect much in the way of insight into the aesthetics of elevation from a director who's the cinematic equivalent of Debbie Downer.  And let's be honest, in technical terms I think we've already seen everything Darren Downer's got to show us several times already.  Plus, Manohla Dargis liked it, which is almost never a good sign.  And then Darren went to - wait for it - Harvard. So I knew the flick would be bad; the only question was, how bad would it be?  And could it possibly be so bad (I half-hoped) that it actually turned out to be good?

Well, how to put this. It's bad, sure enough; REALLY bad.  And yet that magic moment when its clumsy adolescent "tragedy" turns to glorious, fabulous camp never materializes; this grimly turgid turkey never takes flight. And that's because the film's not just bad, but vile in the same way that schlockfests like Sin City are; watching it is like coming upon your kid brother masturbating to some creepy piece of manga he downloaded while the babysitter wasn't looking.  Sure, you can feel Aronofsky aping the approach to some sort of arty apotheosis, like a sumo wrestler lumbering after a butterfly; yet you know no genuine artistic climax can be in the offing, because everything in the film has been so crudely pre-determined.  The movie can neither succeed nor fail, because nothing is ever at stake in it; it's the kind of "wild ride" in which we can see the tracks ahead of us from the very start, leading right into the ground.  (This is why roller coasters, and the movies that imitate them, aren't art: you always know what's going to happen next - another "shock!"). And so despite its prevalent mood of forced hysteria, in artistic terms Black Swan can only lie there, quivering, like poor Natalie Portman does after somehow dancing the final act of Swan Lake with a six-inch shard of glass wedged in her stomach.

I know I'm supposed to critically "support" this kind of ridicule - but do I really have to?  This thing was painful enough sitting through the first time; pondering it again is almost too much to contemplate.  And where to begin, anyway?  Black Swan is sheer idiocy from start to finish, a crudely calculated pastiche of tricks and tics from other, far better movies.  (Indeed, as you watch it, and pick up quotes from movies as disparate as The Red Shoes, The Tenant and Repulsion, you wonder if something still counts as a "quote" if it has been translated into cinematic Klingon.)

The movie is, as I'm sure you've heard, about Natalie Portman falling apart as she prepares to dance both the "white" and "black" swans - Odette and Odile, not that those names are ever mentioned in the movie - in a new, "visceral" version of Swan Lake choreographed by the hilariously sleazy Vincent Cassel.  The emaciated Portman (she went through a punishing regimen to simulate the physique of a prima ballerina in a matter of months) does look ravishing, and it's wonderful, after watching her drone on in Kurosawa drag in all those dreadful Star Wars duds, to see her acting again - she contributes a glowingly febrile kind of performance (indeed, at times she and the slimily intelligent Cassel - not to mention the glamorously ravaged Winona Ryder - almost make the movie worth watching).  But in the end, her performance is all actressy nerves and hot air, because Portman has nothing to play but one pop cliché after another.  "Nina," her character, isn't a character so much as a collection of dated tropes from anime (we half-expect her eyes to be twice normal size).  She dresses in white and pink and still lives with her Carrie-wannabe Mom (a scary Barbara Hershey - that botox has not worn well!) because emotionally she's a control freak who's still a little girl - get it? (If not, I'm sure one of the stuffed animals she sleeps with will explain it to you.) And slowly, Little Miss Perfect begins to crack up under the pressure of her "perfection" in ways that only digital imagery has made possible.  Indeed, when she finally gets in touch with her "black swan" side, Nina begins sprouting black feathers.

Just what the dudes - I mean the doctor - ordered!
Uh-huh.  Yes, the movie really is that stupidly literal.  Or rather that stupidly hallucinogenic.  Because just about every shock cut and blood-drenched special effect in it turns out to be a dream, you see.   Which only makes you wonder - whatever happened to Darren Aronofsky?  He seemed so smart when he made π - how'd he get so dumb?  And so repetitive?  We can quickly tell he's merely going to pound Portman into the dirt, just as he did Mickey Rourke and Ellen Burstyn before her.  Because everyone's doomed in this director's movies - and the bigger they dream, the harder they fall.  Not that said dreams have any interest for him - to Aronofsky, ballet (Black Swan) = wrestling (The Wrestler) = drug abuse (Requiem for a Dream).  There is no meaning to these specific contexts - they're just serviceable frames in which Darren Downer can recycle his fetish for destruction.  Indeed, in one particularly creepy scene, when Portman tells her mom over her cell that she's won her coveted role, you can see Portman all but lit from within by overwhelming emotion - but Darren lights her cruelly, and shoots her in punishing close-up: to him, her vulnerability makes her a gargoyle, a harpy he's happy to slowly pull apart, limb from limb.  Somehow, you get the impression, in his mind she's got it coming.

And if you think I'm kidding about that "fetish" part, think again.  None of the dim bulbs who've raved about this piece of trash ever mentions that Aronofsky concocted this supposed "psychological" thriller with the help of three other guys - together they seem to have operated like a team of fratboys diagnosing the damaged house bunny.  And what do they think poor Nina needs to help her dance that challenging "black swan" role?  Why, she needs to get felt up by an older man, masturbate, and then indulge in a lesbian sex scene (with the overripe Mila Kunis, above) - what else?  At such moments the movie seems so stunningly retro in its sexual politics you're not sure if you want to laugh or cry - but you do know you want to kick Darren Aronofsky in the nuts, and hard.

Sometimes, I admit, I wondered if it wasn't the pseudo-intellectual pretentiousness of the movie that bugged me more than its misogyny.  I mean, when Dario Argento starts torturing the ballerinas to death in his nutty Suspiria (at left), you're not as irritated, because his infantile sadism is so undisguised (and so pathetic somehow) - and, well, also because Dario's powers of stylization are so much stronger than Darren's.  Although I did like the production design of Black Swan (even though there's nothing in it to match half of The Red Shoes, below). Portman looks particularly great as Odile, with crazy batwings taped to her eyes (at top), and a crown of thorns growing right out of her head.  The gulag-chic look of the rehearsal halls and dressing rooms is likewise sick fun - although it's never really spooky.

Because face it, Darren Aronofsky's no Roman Polanski (as some have claimed) - please, the very comparison makes me gag.  Polanski is a highly cultured man; whatever you may think of his sexual misdeeds, his films aren't sourced in Korean horror movies, they're sourced in a poetic, and tormented, vision of the horror of the real world (he spent his childhood literally fleeing from Nazis, not traipsing through Harvard Yard!).  In Repulsion, for instance, the doomed heroine's paranoia seeps out of a thoroughly-imagined, utterly realistic mise-en-scène - and what's more, in the final haunting shot, we realize her traumatized psyche may have been caused by her sexually abusive father.  She doesn't self-destruct - she has been destroyed, a plight that seems simply beyond the artistic reach of Aronofsky's terminal narcissism.

And let's just talk a moment about Swan Lake, and the world of ballet, shall we?  Yes, ballet is a harsh physical mistress - and there's certainly a good movie to be made about that, one that questions whether any artistic achievement could be worth such a steep physical and psychological price.  But Darren Downer couldn't care less about that, frankly - the issue of the satisfaction artistic achievement can bring never enters into his calculus; indeed, to him I'm not sure such satisfaction exists.

As for Odette and Odile - it is, in fact, the black swan who is the psychological mystery in Swan Lake, and the great challenge of the role is not sexual abandon, as Aronofsky would have it, but rather insight into the calculations of Odile's perversity - not to mention her charged relationship with her evil father.  But in the girls-only psychosexual snake pit of Black Swan, none of this material can be allowed onstage or onscreen - things would get so complicated! - and thus the very essence of Swan Lake is hopelessly distorted.  Likewise you'd never guess that the ending of the ballet is famously up for grabs - there are at least four variations that are commonly danced, although I think Black Swan marks the first time it has ended with hara-kiri.

The Red Shoes sums up Black Swan in a single shot.
Sigh - so okay, Black Swan's a bum's rush - but oddly enough, it might still prove a boon to ballet.  Clueless millennials may well be drawn to Swan Lake, hoping to find in its tropes an orgy of feminine self-abuse.  They'll be disappointed, of course; but maybe a few of them will nevertheless leave the theatre hooked by ballet's overwhelming beauty - and soon enough, they'll be back.  No, it's not the state of ballet that I'm worried about when I ponder Black Swan - it's the state of the cinema.  Once, many years ago, I cared passionately for the movies - but now I wonder how.  Or rather I wonder how this great art form could have slowly transformed itself into such a virulent cultural cancer.  Gazing at Black Swan, as memories of ballet movies like The Red Shoes flitted through my head, my heart grew heavier and heavier; it was almost like watching the requiem for a dream.


  1. You offer very interesting criticism in a society that is already in love with Black Swan. I will watch the movie, try and get lost in the world, then pull myself out of it and get back to you :)
    But it's nice to find someone else who adores The Red Shoes (I watched Martin Scorsese's re-colored version on tcm)!!! Such a visually stimulating movie.

  2. You're right, our society seems to be in love with this movie. That says something pretty sad about our society, though. If you love ballet, as I do, I'd advise you to avoid this flick - it will only infuriate you, and remind you again of how pop culture has completely lost its way. What's saddest about Black Swan is not just its incessant reminder that pop has become so devoted to debasement that Darren Aronofsky can't even conceptualize the elevation of ballet; it's instead the obvious encoding of the most dated sexist and misogynist smears imaginable in a shiny new wrapper (which supposed sophisticates are poised to shower with awards!). The millennials prove yet again they're no better than their parents, and arguably worse.

  3. I think you're correct about how Dario Argento's stylization is superior to anything Aronofsky presents. I'm not a huge fan of the horror genre, but there's a degree of craftsmanship in Argento's work that permeates Suspiria that etches individual shots into the memory in a way that I doubt will ever happen with Black Swan.

    I enjoyed watching (note that I stress a only vision) Black Swan but the script is simply dumb on so many levels: emotionally, psychologically, and structurally.

    You're absolutely correct about everything being predetermined so the characters do things that make no sense just in order to get to the intended result.

    Oh, just to be fair: you can't completely blame the millennials this time: Aronofsky is a Gen-Xer.

  4. Argento is bizarre in that his scripts have gotten wackier and wackier - the later ones barely hold together, in fact. But the horror sequences within those scripts remain grotesquely bravura; the precise stylings of these weird butcherings are all he really cares about. I'd hardly call his stuff "art," but you can tell a real craftsman is at work nonetheless!

    And okay, you're right about Aronofsky's generation. The millennials are off the hook THIS time!

  5. I probably remember Suspiria and Deep Red as better films than they actually are simply because they are good looking films.

    Just imagine if Argento's scripts had actually improved over the course of his career! He really seems to have done his best work back in the 1970s. His subsequent work doesn't even look as good.

  6. thank you for agreeing with me about Aronofsky. to me he's like a Speilberg who manipulates you to feel like crap rather than to feel uplifted. Why does having contempt and a will to abuse your characters make you a fancy artist these days?