The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Black Swan

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article I want to talk here a little about the basic question of how Black Swan is asking us to view it, and thus how we should evaluate it.

By and large, people who dislike this film seem to think that it takes itself more seriously than it should - that is, they believe it sees itself as ‘art’ rather than a melodramatic, slightly sleazy genre picture. Those who love it, on the other hand, tend to appreciate it either precisely because it revels in ‘lowbrow’ pleasures, or because the fact that it’s so hysterically camped-up means it avoids attempting an entirely straight face. I count myself a member of the latter group, albeit with a few caveats.

A little like Blue Valentine (2010), it seems to me that elements of this film’s style and context can lure us into expecting something that the film ultimately isn’t interested in delivering. Aronofsky’s status as an indie auteur, the high art milieu of ballet, the classical score - all these things can encourage the feeling that the movie is itself aiming to be something of an arthouse picture.

In one way, this sense is increased by all the symbolism on show in the sets, costume, and plot. But let’s look at what kind of symbolism this is exactly. Most ostentatiously, there are mirrors everywhere in this movie: they make dramatic sense in the ballet school, but Nina and her mother’s apartment also seems festooned with them. There’s the fact that Nina constantly wears white even outside rehearsals, while the ironically-named Lily wears black. Indeed, Nina even wears a feathery white scarf. There are the excess of toys in Nina’s room, the swan that sits by her bath, her ringtone being a piece from Swan Lake, the black dragon-like wings on Lily’s back and the fact that Nina keeps scratching in the same spot on her shoulders, the overall interest in doppelgangers, and so on and so forth.

If all these things were intended to be clever - things that an astute viewer could applaud themselves for picking up on - then this would be a hilariously obvious arthouse movie. L. A. Times critic Kenneth Turan is one who has complained about unsubtlety, adding contemptuously that “expecting subtlety from a Darren Aronofsky film is like expecting Pixar to announce a slasher movie”. This entirely misses the point, however, that - as said in the short review - a lack of subtlety is exactly what this film requires, and strives for. This is because this isn’t a work of “high-art trash”, as Turan calls it, but rather what we might choose to call a ‘trashy’ movie that just happens to take place in the world of high art, and is made by an auteur.

Every single one of Black Swan’s themes is not so much developed or hinted at, as might happen in an arthouse movie, but explicitly stated, repeated, and insisted upon. It quickly becomes clear that, for example, the mirrors are not being used as a visual motif that symbolically suggest split personality, but rather as devices that openly express that split personality: Nina’s mirror-image becomes detached from her own, and she eventually uses a shard of mirror to stab Lily. The central themes of duality and the pursuit of artistic perfection are not things we are expected to somehow work out, but things we are told about: within the first twenty minutes Thomas has laid out the hardly complicated white/black swan dichotomy, and Nina has said that she just wants to be “perfect”. The remainder of the film proceeds to work through these themes brazenly, using the plot of the ballet as a guide (which, again, is helpfully synopsized for us in the opening), until they lead to the movie’s wholly unavoidable conclusion. So much for subtlety.

To criticize the movie for being obvious or lacking depth, though, is to ignore the fact that the very obviousness of all the symbolism is wholly fitting for Black Swan, which never hopes to be anything other than an archetypal story combined out of various different genres: fairytale, horror, melodrama, and so on. All these types of stories contain symbolism, but it is symbolism of a particular kind - a direct, visceral sort of symbolism which the reader or viewer could never be expected to struggle to see, but is instead offered to us fully-formed: the link between sex and death offered by vampires, say. It is only possible to accuse this film of being shallow if you hope that it will convey something ‘deep’, and by this we usually mean something that is not immediately obvious - something a viewer can pat themselves on the back for discovering.

David Lynch, say, may invoke horror or film noir, but he isn’t finally making movies in these genres - he makes arthouse films which use genres. Their symbolism is thus made diffuse, ambiguous, and thus easily understood as ‘art’. Aronofsky’s film, on the other hand, doesn’t just employ genres - it embodies them, and its style of symbolism is thus horror film or fairytale symbolism, which are altogether different prospects. Neither approach is better or worse than the other, but it is important to gauge which we are dealing with, or we may end up looking at a film through the wrong lens. A measure of just how to-the-point Black Swan is interested in being is that its end credits list Portman’s role as Nina/White Swan, and Kunis’ as Lily/Black swan. This is a film entirely unconcerned with ambiguity.

A more appropriate comparison for the movie might be something like the excellent little 2007 horror flick, Teeth, which is about a young, abstinent teenage Christian girl who discovers she possesses vagina dentata; gory sex scenes ensue. There is nothing subtle about this: we don’t interpret a metaphor, but rather see it played out - openly and powerfully. Black Swan works on similar levels. Its concerns are uncomplicatedly primitive, and its means of conveying them are thus similarly unadorned. Sexual repression is expressed in Nina’s white costumes and piles of toys; the need to become both the extremes demanded by Thomas is literalised in Lily actually becoming Nina; the sick emphasis placed on physical beauty is played out in multiple scenes of applying make-up and Beth stabbing herself in the face; and, of course, there is the basic fact that Nina doesn’t just transform herself figuratively, but via actual metamorphosis.

As with any film, this movie’s achievement lies not in its meanings but in the way it makes its meanings. Black Swan does what it sets out to do extremely well. Some clearly wished that it had attempted something different and judged it a failure on these terms. Others have recognized the simplicity of the film’s basic elements but still suggested that it somehow manages to exceed them: for instance, Manohla Dargis speaks in the New York Times of “those clichés, which Aronofsky embraces, exploits and, by a squeak, finally transcends”. Yet there is no need to transcend a cliché if it is conveyed with such impressive force.

At bottom, this is exactly what it seems: a blunt and beautiful story of a woman pushed to insanity by unrealistic and dangerous demands: to be both a ‘perfect’ artist and, in the process, the ‘perfect’ embodiment of an age-old virgin/whore dichotomy. That is all, and it's more than enough. Neither original nor complicated in conception, this project is executed in practice with a power and flare that is no less valuable for being direct. To ask for anything else is to desire to watch a different kind of movie.

This Alternate Take was published on February 13, 2011.

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