Cogito: John Branch





Black Swan: A Dissent

by John Everett Branch Jr.

What did I think about Black Swan? My main sensation, during and after this much-talked-about film, was varying degrees of distaste. If the film’s staging of the end of Swan Lakereminds one of the end of Puccini’s Tosca (in both, the heroine plunges from a height onstage), that’s not the only connection one can find; Joseph Kerman dismissed Tosca as a “shabby little shocker,” and while Black Swan is too clever to be called shabby, it seems brutal instead, which is worse.

Trying to think of the film neutrally, analytically, I can see themes and visual elements and issues that would be worth considering if I were being paid to think about the film, among them: the artist’s challenge as a battle with the self, which may seem to be a battle with something or someone else; the goal of losing oneself, the mistake of using death for that purpose; all sorts of Romantic nonsense about things like perfection and death; the theme of the double, the appearance of mysterious others who may be doubles or objects of desire (or both), the frequent and very obvious use of mirror images; the suggestion that the world of professionalized and institutionalized art-making uses up its artists (the character of Beth, played by Winona Ryder, ends up looking like a corpse, and a shriveled, consumed one at that).

But I didn’t get much pleasure out of watching it, nor do I get much out of pondering these elements after the fact. Bluntly put, the film does things that don’t need to be done. To recall Susan Sontag’s three questions, I could more or less say what it’s trying to do, and I think I can say (without doing the analytical and evaluative work) that it does them pretty well, but these things are not of primary importance.

That many people have come away saying things like “blown away” suggests that the film works very well—as far as basic function goes, it’s a successful piece of machinery, crafty and even cunning. It maintains tension, it frequently shocks you (keeping you uncertain and in a way refreshing your attention with jolts), and it may surprise you at the end. It capitalizes on many aspects of dancing that would be barely noticed by insiders—the punishment meted out to toe shoes before they can be used, the likelihood of injury—in ways that support its atmosphere and themes. (One almost expects a character to say, “To win all you must risk all,” but the film is smarter than that.) That it divides opinion, as most or all of Aronofsky’s films do, is probably a sign of something dynamic or vibrant, even a kind of vitality, at its core. Though it’s not high praise to say that you will not be bored, that gives the film a certain distinction; much that we experience and consume these days is boring, routine, mundane, or (only slightly better) a sustained annoyance, as Shutter Island was.

Nonetheless, I think Black Swan is wrongheaded, even (if one assumes that it’ll be taken seriously) dangerous. We should long ago have driven a stake through the heart of Romantic confusions about death and art; instead, we allow them to persist, to revive themselves at night, spring up from their coffin, and prey on fresh victims who are young enough (childish enough, inexperienced enough) not to be wary. That, I suppose, is my chief objection to the film. Black Swan traffics in these things without perhaps entirely supporting them; it may, then, be closer to corrupt than to immoral. So is Tosca. (I won’t take the space here to explain that, but you can read Joseph Kerman’s analysis in Opera as Drama; as for Black Swan, I know I’m remiss in not being more specific, but if I’m lucky, anyone who cares to read this will already have seen the film.)

I hope I won’t offend a friend who feels otherwise, but now that I’ve seen it, I can’t say I’m uncommonly impressed by the ballet costumes created by the Mulleavy sisters of the Rodarte fashion company. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them. A colleague, if I heard her right, wondered why traditional Swan Lake costuming wouldn’t have worked, but since the idea in the story is to present a new take on the ballet, a new look seemed necessary, and the costumes we see are new. However, we don’t get much of a chance to appreciate them, considering the shooting style, nor does one hunger for a better look, as one often does in films with genuinely impressive and imaginative costumes (as in Elizabethor Orlando or Velvet Goldmine). It’s simply good work; you’d be surprised, and disappointed, if the costumes looked wrong, but that the designers have given us exactly what the story calls for isn’t reason for special praise.

I also don’t understand why even experienced film critics, such as Manohla Dargis of the Times, have been impressed by Natalie Portman’s performance. Dargis called it “smashing, bruising, and wholly committed,” observed that the role is “demandingly physical,” and added, “This is, after all, Ms. Portman’s own thin body on display, her jutting chest bones as sharply defined as a picket fence.” So what? Film actors routinely undertake to change their body to suit a character; they add weight to look paunchy, muscle up to look like a warrior, slim down to look sleek. And they routinely train to learn aspects of the life and work they’ve got to represent, as when young men take military training before playing soldiers. It’s long been expected that actors know, or be able to learn, things like period manners and deportment, sword fighting, horseback riding, ballroom and historical dancing; current practice has simply extended the expectations somewhat, calling on Portman to attempt some high-level ballet (which she already had a background in, just as Neve Campbell employed a dance background for The Company). One can recognize the work required without crediting it as exceptional. Nowadays it’s more notable when a film actor doesn’t attempt to transform herself; many women I know were pleased to see a bit of belly bulge on Julia Roberts in Duplicity. If you want to follow the common silly practice of taking films and performers as potential models (we ought to know better), Roberts is the one to applaud.

What I thought about Portman is mainly that she spent most of the film looking tremulous, uncertain, fearful, hesitant. This appeared to be little more than a directorial calculation, so that when she finally showed herself to be commanding and momentarily fierce as the Black Swan (not exactly what the role calls for, or even what the film’s ballet director has kept asking her for, which was seduction), the audience may be pleased.  They were; I was. That’s not the same thing as giving a seriously rich, deep, and varied performance.

As with Tosca, prevailing opinion in the long run may go in favor of Black Swan. If so, I’ll be content to count myself in the minority.

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