January 4th, 2011

The bleak, baroque, berserk “Black Swan”

Black Swan” was one of those movies I just had to see. After all, it’s described as a psychological thriller about ballet. So, what’s not to like?

Well, just about everything. I didn’t merely dislike this film, I loathed it.

“Black Swan” is suspenseful, all right. But the non-stop suspense involves one thing and one thing only: exactly when will the next flesh-rending Grand Guignol moment occur? It’s difficult to make viewers feel simultaneously horrified, exhausted, and bored, but the film’s relentless one-note assault manages to accomplish that mean feat.

The characters consist of cliché after cliché after cliché: the sexually predatory ballet company director; the shy, bulimic, repressed underling dancer who finally gets her Big Chance; the pretend friend and rival who just might be an enemy in disguise; the jealous older dancer who’s all washed up; the enmeshed and controlling ballet mother who sacrificed her career to…well, you get the idea.

And the sex—let’s not forget the sex. The movie certainly doesn’t. Every sexual encounter between two people (although the movie’s specialty is actually sex for one) is decidedly unpleasant. The obligatory lesbian sex scene is probably the only one of its kind in which viewers are justifiably afraid that one of the actresses is literally going to eat the other—as in “sink teeth into, draw blood, and devour.”

If that doesn’t strike your fancy, there’s the dancing. After all, this is a dance movie, right? All dance films must face the question of whether to cast dancers in the leading roles and sacrifice the acting, or cast actors in the leading roles and sacrifice the dancing. “The Red Shoes” and “The Turning Point (see this for a personal note) resolved the dilemma in favor of dancers who could act somewhat. In “Black Swan,” it’s actresses who can dance somewhat.

Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis do a pretty good job—good but not great, since it’s an impossible task to fake artistry and/or professional technique. The camera obsessively follows the movements of Portman’s slender, flexible upper body in claustrophobic closeups which make her seem convincing as a dancer, although a relatively uninteresting one. She can rise on her toes and perform simple movements respectably, as well. But when bravura technique is required, it’s a long shot and a body double to the rescue.

But in fact, none of the dancing in the film is of interest as dance per se, and there really isn’t that much of it anyway. But dance is not what this movie is about—it’s “Rosemary’s Baby” crossed with “Repulsion,” sur les pointes. If that seems like a mixed metaphor—well, it is.

[NOTE: In the life-imitates-art department, star Portman is now pregnant and engaged to the NYC Ballet dancer who plays the brief role of the Prince in the film, handsome Benjamin Millepied. Until the filming began, Millepied had a live-in girlfriend, American Ballet Theatre dancer Isabella Boylston. This would make Portman the Other Woman, just like Odile, the Black Swan is in "Swan Lake." Does that make Boylston Odette, the White Swan?]

51 Responses to “The bleak, baroque, berserk “Black Swan””

  1. Kevin Tapscott Says:

    …and I thought I was the only one. You nailed it. This thing received widespread critical acclaim… and I usually like the critically acclaimed… This was a truly awful movie.

  2. FenelonSpoke Says:

    Thanks for the very interesting review; I had no desire to see this film before the review, and now you couldn’t pay me to see it, “‘Rosemary’s Baby” crossed with “Repulsion” sur le pointes” LOL, and I have liked some ballet films in the past. “The Red Shoes” is one of my favorites.

  3. Occam's Beard Says:

    A dancer named Millepied?.

    Surely that’s a joke!

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    Occam’s Beard: nope, no joke. Funny, though.

  5. Fausta Says:

    Glad you told us, Neo.
    Go see True Grit instead.

  6. Lee Merrick Says:

    Wow, was going to see it tonight! Nevermind.

  7. Curtis Says:

    A finer alliteration than ‘bleak, baroque, beserk Black’ will be hard to find. I notice its a double alliteration because of the “k.”

  8. gcotharn Says:

    I enjoyed “True Grit”: a celebration of manly code of behavior, yet the girl dominates.

  9. FenelonSpoke Says:

    Millipied certainly wasted no time in hot footing it away from his then current girlfriend to jump feet first into an affair with Portman.

  10. FenelonSpoke Says:

    It seems that a former ballet dancer named Greenway who now does arts reviews the “Montreal Times” shares your dislike for the movie, neo,

  11. Andi Says:

    “The King’s Speech” is wonderful.I didn’t believe a movie about stuttering could be good-but it is and of course it isn’t really about the stuttering.

  12. colagirl Says:

    Thanks for the review. I was wondering whether it would be worth seeing; now I know not to waste my time and money. :P And I second gcotharn’s strong recommendation of “True Grit”–the fourteen-year-old Hailey Steinfeld is amazing as the female lead, and actually manages to hold her own alongside Jeff Bridges, who is clearly having a great time. Oh, and Matt Damon’s in it too.

  13. helvetica Says:

    It had Natalie Portman in it – that was enough reason for me not to see it. Using the term “actress” to describe her is overly generous. Talentless waif is a better one.

  14. neo-neocon Says:

    Curtis: thank you. I was rather proud of that, myself.

  15. SteveH Says:

    Aren’t movies in general suffering from left wing ideological overload? Maybe it’s just me, but i swear movies could be so much more.

  16. Tatyana Says:

    Completely disagree.

    It’s a wonderful film (not a “movie”).
    You might call the story “cliche”, but every cliche was born by an endless repetition of events in reality; I call it “true”.
    The actors are marvelous, the effects are great and their timing is exact, the emotions true, too – what’s more, I think the film is not about dancing at all, it’[s just a pretext. You want to see a choreographed ballet danced by professional ballerinas you came to the wrong movie.
    It was the best film in its class I have seen since Farinelli.

  17. Tatyana Says:

    I think the word is “berserk”, not “beserk”.

    And the film neither one of the descriptives you used in teh title.

  18. Tatyana Says:

    OB, are you making fun of a guy’s last name? Are oyu really?

    A hint: Millepied is a French name. I would think even in 4th grade making fun of a foreign surname is considered rather lame.

  19. rickl Says:

    Well, at least she’s not engaged to a centipede. Millipedes don’t bother me at all.

  20. neo-neocon Says:

    Tatyana: thanks for the typo correction. I’ll fix it.

  21. FenelonSpoke Says:

    Best film in its class?-You mean other grand guignol (sp) films about berserk ballerinas, films which rely on sterotypes and near cannibalistic sex scenes? Quite a class there. ;^) I would agree, however, that the ballet is probably a pretext.
    Bottom line: Won’t be getting my money.

    I liked “True Grit” and will see “The King’s Speech” tomorrow.

  22. FenelonSpoke Says:

    I just had to post a link to the review on “The Black Swan” by the former ballet dancer now writing for “The Montreal Times”. “Norma Desmond in a tutu with mad makeup and blood spewing out of her gut” made me laugh. Apparently for this reviewer, the campiness was so awful it was funny:


  23. fred lapides Says:

    Portman turned in a very impressive performance in a film that was campy. That Portman is now engaged to the guy who had a girlfriend is hardly a shock when we look at the world of celebrities and has absolutely nothing to do with a critique of the film.

  24. Tatyana Says:

    keep your money, then. No doubt, you’ll find a better art to spend them on.

    What IS funny, however, is the “former dancer” calling somebody “Norma Desmond in tutu”; unintended irony is always the most amusing.

    You think I will argue with the blind about colors? with cold-blooded about emotion? with pedants about beauty? or look for arguments to counter petty senseless labeling?
    Spoke –
    There was no “cannibalistic scenes” there, FenelonSpoke – you might be better served if you in fact, go and see the film for yourself instead of relying on Norma Desmonds’ smears.

  25. Tatyana Says:

    I am proud that two actresses in the film (Natalie and Mila) that truly offered an incredible performance, are of the same origin as I am. There was really such a contrast with wooden, robotic the rest of the cast.

    A thought: maybe in fact, that has something to do with the negative reviews? People who can’t feel, who have no organ for sentiment are irritated…yes, I think this is a likely explanation.

  26. neo-neocon Says:

    fred lapides: I didn’t think much of Portman’s performance, either, although I didn’t go into that in the review. Perhaps she did the best that could be done with the material, but I wasn’t impressed. Despite the supposed Janus-like qualities of the character, I didn’t find she showed much depth in either manifestation. I didn’t find her believable as a driven dancer, either. I’m puzzled by the accolades for her acting.

  27. avery Says:

    Is Tatyana some sort of Sorrows of Young Werther troll? Something new all the time on the internet.

  28. Tatyana Says:

    but absolutely, avery – naturally, whoever disagrees with the shared opinion of this here site is a troll.

    you even demonstrated an acquaintance with some “eurpean” art, fancy that!
    you will surely get the highest marks with your “diva”.

  29. FenelonSpoke Says:

    Tatyana, you seem to be taking it quite personally about people not wanting to see the film, or not agreeing with your point of view on it. I am quite capable of feeling, am not cold blooded and have a fine “organ of sentiment”. While it’s interesting that the two actresses share your background, that may not have much to do with whether they are good actresses or not and I do have a background in theatre, not dance, But bravo on the theatrical hyperbole: “I will not argue with the blind about beauty.,” etc.

    End of discussion.

    Mr. Lapides-My comment about Portman had nothing to do the film. It was gratuitous snark! ;^)

  30. FenelonSpoke Says:

    And BTW, I said “near cannabilistic sex scenes” which was a reflection on what neo noted.

  31. nolanimrod Says:

    A dancer with a name like Millepied is pretty weird, too.

  32. nolanimrod Says:

    I couldn’t understand why everyone kept saying

    see True Grit!

    I mean, it was a good movie, but why it and why now and what the hell was the connection between a dance movie and Rooster Cogburn unless it was something like Judge Roy Bean and Lily Langtree?

    Now, I get it. Re-make, right? Please excuse me while I quietly sign up at one of the death panels.

  33. SteveH Says:

    Tatyana would be a smug elitist lib if she didn’t find them so below her.

  34. F Says:

    I don’t see many new films in a given year (maybe one, maybe fewer) but I was thinking of seeing Black Swan, based on a friend’s recommendation. Guess I’ll go see True Grit instead.

    How about a review of Blue Valentine, someone? That’s another I’m considering. F

  35. neo-neocon Says:

    F: I went on a friend’s recommendation, too. Lots of people really love the movie.

    But I’m not saying don’t go, if you’re curious. Just WATCH OUT.

  36. Mike Walsh Says:

    Forget it, Jake. It’s Aranovsky.

    Anyone who had seen any of his other films knew what to expect.

  37. babka Says:

    it would be nice if the baby were something good to come out of All This. Imagine Natalie training and starving to make the film, and now allowing her body to do what it needs to to nourish a child in the harsh glare of the limelight and the flashbulbs of the paparazzi upon her and her relationship and her incipient Oscar. She interests me, as she is one of the few non-gutsy (Streisand, Renee Taylor, Lainie Kazan, Debra Win ger, Madeline Kahn)but fragile Jewish women allowed to “star” in films, note the cynical casting of Wynona Ryder, her fallen predecessor. (I am not counting the half-Jewish darlings – Goldie Hawn – nor the 14th of a Jewish Mary Louise). I won’t be seeing the price Portman had to pay….”what she did for love”…..leave me my Menotti….”O black swan”….from The Medium. And I like Shearer’s acting. Thanks for the wearning neocon!

  38. babka Says:

    make that “warning”, please.

  39. Dennis Says:

    Liked it SteveH. The nose is so far in the air that there is a possibility of drowning when it rains.

  40. David A Says:

    Are you saying that she danced with her two Leftist feet? Would that be “DeuxGauchesPied” in French, or putting three words together to make a single word — would that make it a [Natalie] Portmanteau word?

  41. mizpants Says:

    I’m just back from a trip and am late to the discussion, but I, too, hated Black Swan, for many of the reasons Neo and other site, and also for the hokey notion that artists need to cultivate their dark sides, their “shadow selves” in order to be great. What a venerable chestnut that one is. Whatever truth there is to it has been swamped by sentimentality and imprecision, especially in this movie.
    I recommend The Fighter, another movie in which the lead actors had to learn a harrowing physical discipline. But there’s so much more psychological subtlety and socio-economic realism than in Black Swan. I especially loved those harpy sisters!

  42. babka Says:

    this from jim hensen’s scanners blog:

    Please Make Her Head Explode Award: Natalie Portman, who manages to maintain the same expression on her face (fear, distress, about-to-cry) up until the last few minutes of “Black Swan” (Darren Aronofsky), when her one-note performance finally becomes a one and one-thirty-second-note performance.

  43. Anonyma Says:

    Tatyana prattled: “I am proud that two actresses in the film (Natalie and Mila) that truly offered an incredible performance, are of the same origin as I am. There was really such a contrast with wooden, robotic the rest of the cast.”

    The same origin? You mean from a woman’s womb?

    babka burbled: “She interests me, as she is one of the few non-gutsy (Streisand, Renee Taylor, Lainie Kazan, Debra Win ger, Madeline Kahn)but fragile Jewish women allowed to “star” in films, note the cynical casting of Wynona Ryder, her fallen predecessor.”

    Interesting, Babs and Tats are both prejudiced people of some sort, checking and counting origins and awarding special attention to their origin-alikes amongst us humans.

    I wonder if they are the same commentor or if they are birds of a very dark feather flocking here to display their prejudices?

  44. Cheesy Says:

    Guy has a pet millipede.
    Says, “I’m going out, wanna come along?
    No answer.
    Repeats the question.
    Still no answer.
    “Well, I’m going to go myself then.”
    “Jeez, can you be patient, I’m putting on my shoes!”

  45. Tonestaple Says:

    My sister dubbed this movie “When Ballerinas Attack.” I won’t be seeing this in the theater but I will definitely get it from Netflix when the DVD comes out. It sounds deliciously overwrought and overworked.

  46. neo-neocon Says:

    tonestaple: I’m with you on the “overwrought and overworked.”

    Not really “deliciously,” though.

  47. She won! « Скрипучая беседка Says:

    [...] she’ll not get her due. Yes, Oscar was her due, for a beautiful, outstanding work – I knew it right after I saw the film. And her acceptance speech was good, too. She didn’t thank God, [...]

  48. babka Says:

    as a Russian Jew in The Business, my comments about Jewish actresses in a business whose origins featured Jewish men might best be understood by other actors who have been turned down for their “ethnic” looks. Judy Holiday, begging for a role, was told something to the effect that Jews made movies, and that nice Jewish girls didn’t belong on film. But I digress. Saw the film. Portman acts as though she has sprained her neck, and is trying to be tall, and brave through the continual pain. (which I was in, watching). Liked Mila, the character and the actress.Hated the script. Kitchen sink something for every demographic, especially the guy in the raincoat, jerking off to the balletic score. don’t find Millipied attractive, as a man, as a dancer, and as a very boring choreographer. only thing that had resonane for me was the Rapunzel/Stockholm Syndrome mother-daughter bondage, and suicide as “perfection”. In terms of John Gardner’s rule for fiction (equivalent to the physician’s “first do no harm”) – I think this film is part of the problem of our time. It is all dark side…even when the stuffed bunnies go into the incinerator. And poor Barbara Hershey and her post facelift crooked mouth…but who would turn down such a film? Eliciting in toto the Mad Magazine expletive: ECCCCCHHHH.

  49. babka Says:

    resonance – 9th line from the bottom

    Anonyma: are you flocking here to show your ignorance of my meaning?

  50. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society Says:

    Note: I haven’t seen the film. It looks to me as though it’s one which will not suffer overmuch from waiting for it on video, much like “The King’s Speech”. Movies cost way too much these days in terms of hours-enjoyed-vs-money-spent. I’d rather buy a videogame and rent a movie later. Even a mediocre videogame provides 10-20 hrs for about twice the price of a 2-hr movie.

    That codicil in mind:

    It had Natalie Portman in it – that was enough reason for me not to see it. Using the term “actress” to describe her is overly generous. Talentless waif is a better one.

    Sorry, I respectfully disagree. She’s certainly picked some mediocre roles, and perhaps these have been at the heart of forming your opinion, but I said back in 1994 that she was going to get an Oscar someday.

    This certainly appeared to be a year for Oscars being awarded more for a body of work than the specific thing they were nominated for, to me.

    But the entire last decade has pretty much sucked, both for movies and for the AAwards. Quite the letdown from the 90s, which rivals the 40s as the best decade for great movies, and which kicked the a$$ of every other decade for Oscar “perfection.” (that is, I had no problem with any Oscar winner of the 90s. In several cases I might not have chosen that movie as the winner, if it were solely up to me, but there was nothing that won that wasn’t seriously deserving of the award against most other possible competition — no decade “got it right” even close to how well the 90s got it).

    Not to suggest that there haven’t been any good movies at all since 1999. There’ve been lots, but they’re rarer than they were in the 90s: LotR Trilogy, The Incredibles, Snatch, Spiderman, Alice In Wonderland, a few others. Nothing like the 20-30 good pix a year that came through most of the 1990s.

    The two best years: 1994 and 1999. Probably the best two single years in movie history.

  51. MT of Hollywood Says:

    oh my. I just watched it and immediately googled “hated Black Swan.” I saw quite a collection and, still, it did not make me feel better. Then I remembered neoneo had written on it, for she loves dance, and I rushed over here to see – I was dreading it. I feared neo loved it. I feared I would lose neo for that because I disliked the film so very much. But! No! Neo is my soul mate on matters political and cinematic!

    I WAS SO RELIEVED. Intelligence is solid on all matters when it is solid. What is to love about this film or these characters? Nothing. Heavy handed drivel. Hated it from the beginning for its MTV camera work: do not linger on any face for longer than three seconds. To compare it with Hitchcock is blasphemous.

    I thought maybe Portman would do something in some scene besides furrow her forehead – but, alas. the only relief in the film was when the bitch slipped her some drugs and her face relaxed a little. Other than that, I saw no redeeming features. Well I guess I could say that another redeeming feature was that Hershey did not have all that much screen time. thank the lord – she and her sick daughter were painful to watch.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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