Movie Review: Black Swan
Back in August, we gave you a taste of director Darren Aronofsky's latest hot slice of crazy when we recapped the Black Swan trailer. To give you a quick reminder: creepiness, Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, creepiness, ballet, creepy mom, beautiful dancing, mirror reflections that do their own thing instead of just staring back at you, sexy-time, creepy creepiness, and feathers. Also, creepiness.
Caught up? Good, because the full-length version is out. Before we get started, please keep a few things in mind:
1) This may have gotten an R rating, but some scenes lean more towards the NC-17 side. With that said, if my only choices were seeing the movie with a parent/chaperone and not seeing it at all, I'd opt for the latter. If you do go with an adult, expect to have the following conversation after the movie ends:
Dad: [after a prolonged, awkward silence] So. Do...do you have any. Um. Questions?
Dad: Because, you know. If you want to talk about. Um. Anything? We could. Or, maybe your mother could...
You: DAD. Please. Can we not talk about this?
Dad: Okay. Sure. [beat] You know that when most people are intimate with each other, they don't turn into swans, right?
You: DAD! [dies of embarrassment]
2) If the trailer made the hair on the back of your neck stand up, remember, the trailer was only two minutes and nine seconds long. The actual movie is a full 108 minutes, so if you're bad with with tense relationships, paranormal and psychosexual weirdness, some outright scary moments, spooky editing and camera tricks, and more blood than a Red Cross drive, this might not be the flick for you. Also, Aronofsky's kind of known for being a talented, level 15 weirdo, so if you're expecting hugs or fluffy bunnies or something sustainably good to happen, look somewhere else.
With those warnings in place, off we go!
SPOILER ALERT FROM PRETTY MUCH HERE ON IN.
Nina (aka Natalie Portman) stands center stage in the middle of the spotlight. Girlfriend is prima ballerina to the core. She dances this crazy beautiful ballet with a huge dude in a black feathery get-up and a beak-y mask, and things get crazier and crazier. Suddenly, Nina snaps awake. We get that, even in her sleep, she's kind of obsessed with Swan Lake. She's got swan pictures in the bathroom by the tub, and even her ringtone for her mom, Erica, is the midi theme to Swan Lake. Got it.
We learn that Erica and Nina live together on the Upper West Side, and that Erica used to be a dancer. Now, she just acts like an agorophobe, paints creepy portraits, and thinks that a healthy mother-daughter relationship means crawling directly up your daughter's butt and camping out there for a decade or two. But I digress.
Erica feeds Nina breakfast and quizzes her about this season at Thomas' Top Tier Ballet Company and Quasi-Consensual Sexery. Nina's convinced that Thomas is going to feature her more as a soloist, and Erica's all like, "Hm. That's nice, dear. Now, let me brush your hair and tuck you into bed in your pink-and-purple, stuffed-animal-filled room, and cut your fingernails, because you have a problem where you scratch yourself on your shoulders until you bleed. You are my SWEET GIRL. I will call you that incessantly. Also, let me chew up your food and spit it into your mouth for you, because THAT'S WHAT MOMMY SWANS DO FOR BABY SWANS."
We're at dance practice in Lincoln Center. This is the big time, people. Thomas makes an appearance to lecture his dahn-sirs about the new season. They'll be kicking things off with a performance of (...wait for it) Swan Lake. But this production will be "stripped-down"! It'll be raw! It'll be shocking! The story of Swan Lake is this: a sorcerer turns a beautiful girl into a white swan, and only love can break the spell. The white swan is smitten with a prince, and she thinks he's going to be her savior until the sorcerer's daughter—an evil, stank nasty black swan—comes along and seduces the prince. White swan, realizing she's lost her love, leaps to her death.
Thomas is looking for new Swan Queens, and a few of the soloists, including Nina, are up for the role.
We're at the auditions, and Nina's kicking serious butt. But Thomas isn't pleased. He's like, "We all know you've got serious 'white swan' cred, but where's your 'black swan' mojo?" Nina's in the middle of the black swan part when we hear a door slam. Yut-yoh. Nina's all thrown off, because Lily (aka Mila Kunis) is there for the same audition, and boy, is she black swan material. Nina blows it, Thomas dismisses her, and Nina looks like she's about to throw up—except this time, not on purpose.
Later, Nina goes to plead her case to Thomas, who's like, "Whatever. I already cast someone else as the Swan Queen." But then they make out, and things are moving along inappropriately when, suddenly, the scary music flares, and Thomas jerks back and is like, "What the...you bit me! Really hard! And you can't put Bactine on the inside of your lip, jerk!" Nina thinks she's blown it for good, and she sulks while the cast list goes up. But then former star Beth (Winona Ryder) has a fit, and all the girls are squealing in front of the list, and guess what? NINA IS THE SWAN QUEEN AFTER ALL.
From here on in, the story is basically about the struggle between Nina's coddled, sheltered, "good girl" persona, and her hypersexual, murderous, "bad girl" alter ego. As she sinks further into the rehearsal process, she struggles more to keep her two halves divided; she's still nailing the white swan part, but the black swan part isn't tortured enough for Thomas's tastes, and Nina won't "let herself go" and succumb to the dark side. Plus, Beth gets into a horrible (and probably self-inflicted) car accident, and Erica ramps up the pressure. (In one horrible moment, Nina snaps out of...um..."enjoying herself" to discover that her mom's been sleeping in the chair next to her bed. Shudder times 3,000.) Nina decides to defy her mom's stifling rules for a night of total debauchery with Lily. Some drinks, some dudes, and an illicit drug later, the two are in the middle of a fierce (and highly lesbionic) hook-up. But the next morning, Lily swears she wasn't there. She says Nina was just fantasizing. Yikes. And then there's that weird thing where Nina keeps hallucinating that she's actually Lily, that other members of the company have her face, that Beth is stabbing herself in the face, that her mom's portraits can scream, and that Thomas and Lily are doing the nasty backstage. Oh—and there's that other thing where Nina has a knock-down, drag out fight with her mom (and even bashes Erica's hand in a door) before heading off to her stage debut.
The premiere of the ballet is its own special nightmare. Erica has told the company that Nina's sick, meaning that Lily (her alternate) is supposed to take the stage. Lily's pissed that Nina's there after all, but Nina puts on her best diva voice and is like, "I don't care if she's mad, THOMAS, because I'm going on, beeznotch." Somewhere in the middle of the intermission, Lily knocks on Nina's dressing room door, and the two have a wicked fight about who should be the lead. And then, suddenly, Nina's smashes Lily into a mirror and stabs her in the stomach with a shard of glass. Lily dies a bloody death, and Nina drags her into the bathroom and hides her away, then calmly retakes the stage. Her performance as the black swan is amazing, so much so that we see her grow a full set of black feathers and wings on stage. (When she bows, looking like a normal girl, we realize that the feathers were a hallucination.) The audience is wowed, but during the next intermission, Nina looks in the bathroom: no Lily, no blood. And when Nina looks down, she sees a pool of blood spreading across her own midsection. She pulls a shard of glass out from her stomach: she actually stabbed herself, not Lily. Despite her injury, Nina goes on for her final act. She wows the audience and then leaps to the mattress below the scenery, where she dies of her self-inflicted wound. But Nina doesn't care that she's dying. She's happy that her performance was flawless, and as she expires, all she can tell Thomas is that it was "perfect." The end.
Aronofsky's got a real love of the dark side, and his visual tastes are beautiful and unusual. (In fact, his aesthetic eye is so strong, you could probably remove all the dialogue and still have an interesting movie.) But even so, he's not exactly a master of subtlety. From the first second, he dresses Nina in white and Lily in black, and when Nina migrates towards embracing her dark side, she actually borrows a black shirt from Lily and wears it. Really? The good guy wears white and the bad guy wears black? Where have I seen that done before, except in, say, every movie ever? Also, when Nina becomes sexually aware, she burns all of her stuffed animals. It's almost like Aronofsky's waiting in the shadows with the Symbolism Bat, waiting to smack you in the face with it. "Get it?! SHE TURNS INTO THE SWAN BECAUSE SHE'S CONSUMED BY HER ART! I AM A GENIUS." We get it. Dial it back a few notches.
Overall, the performances are tense and engaging, and Natalie Portman is a stand-out as both an actor and a dancer. But I walked away asking myself a single question: "What was the point of this?" As stellar as the acting was, I didn't actually care about any of the characters, and if I really wanted to watch a girl descend into madness, I could save the $13 and visit any high school in America during finals week.
For being pretty to watch but taking itself too seriously, this movie gets a three out of five BAMs.
Your Sparkitors saw Black Swan last weekend, and are just now starting to feel normal again. Did you see it? Did it mess you up, or are we just wimps?