Big Screen Brain: Black Swan

For the New Year, in an effort to encourage more Melted Brain productivity, I’m branching out to film. There will probably not be anywhere near as much film-related content as television-related content, because I don’t have that much to say about movies. But there will be a few fun new things. Like this.

After seeing this film, I found myself trying to define exactly what makes a “good” movie. I honestly cannot decide if Black Swan qualifies or not. It certainly is not destined to become a classic (I doubt it’ll last much beyond DVD release). But, the film achieves exactly what it aims to achieve, and it does that to perfection.

The entire point of Black Swan is to disturb the viewer on a fundamental level. It is not about the duality of beauty/brutality in ballet. It’s not about any kind of duality, although director Darren Aronofsky tries really hard to trick you into thinking that it is. Black Swan exists for the sole purpose of freaking people out. And it does that exceedingly well. This film is a veritable masterpiece of mindfuckery.

The achievement is in the visual and auditory effects. Clint Mansell‘s original score and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” are combined with musical hints of terror straight out of a teenage slasher film to create a soundtrack of elegance and horror. If I were the type to have deep, analytical thoughts about things, I might say something along the lines of “The soundtrack is mixed and moderated to be perfectly in tune with the visual elements and the emotional material; it adds a certain dimension of participation to the film, giving the audience a sense of becoming lost in the music much the way the disturbed ballerina protagonist is encouraged to do.” If I were the type to say that sort of thing.

Black Swan‘s visual side is also excellent. The color choice in the film – mostly combined blacks and whites, as you might imagine – is distinctive and fitted to the mood of each scene. Costuming for the plainclothes portions of the film was given just as much attention and importance as the extraordinary ballet costumes, and the ballet makeup is phenomenal to the point where it draws attention to itself. My favorite visual element of the entire film is Nina’s (Natalie Portman) bedroom. It is childlike, and appears to be girlish and pink and almost freakishly innocent at the beginning. But as the film progresses and becomes increasingly more disturbing, the room changes. Except it doesn’t. The same elements are there the entire time, but the brown and pink floral comforter seems to veer closer and closer to black and white. The large stuffed animals begin to loom. As the viewer’s understanding of the warped surreality increases, the perception of the room changes from “Aww, what a sweet little girl bedroom!” to “Oh My God it’s a pedophile prison.” That is a sort of visual excellence that stands on its own enough that I could watch this movie in another language and not understand a thing, but I’d still get a sense of the mood and enjoy watching.

I wish I could say there was no weak link in the visual elements, but I can’t. Because there was one visual element that embodies the weakest link of the entire film.

Dear filmmaking industry,
Just because the technology is available does not mean you have to use CGI in everything.
Melted Brain

Seriously, the CGI almost ruined it for me. Black Swan incorporates a whole fleet of amazing cutting and editing tricks involving mirrors and multiple Natalie Portmans and changing faces and all sorts of fun things like that. But for some reason someone decided that wasn’t enough. And so we are treated to the mysterious floating macro-goosebumps of craziness (or possibly arousal), to Nina sprouting and growing feathers in the middle of a ballet, to Mila Kunis‘ clearly cliche back tattoo (which a ballerina wouldn’t actually be able to have and work with anyway) which mutates mysteriously during sex, to the most incongruous part of the entire film: the creepy photo room that screams and cries and actually looks more like the pseudo-cartoonish opening sequence of Sweeney Todd more than anything else – actually, now that I think about it, there is also a certain resemblance to the moving-eye portraits in Scooby Doo… . Anyway. All of it is slightly ridiculous, only moderately well-done, and completely unnecessary. BUT. It does exactly what it is supposed to do: it confounds and confuses and profoundly creeps-out. So my dilemma continues.

One part of this film that I will absolutely qualify as good is the acting. The cast is phenomenal, although I believe the true highlights are the performances that garnered less pre-release attention. Certainly, Natalie Portman delivers. Her performance is absolutely stunning. Not only does she make a semi-credible ballerina (at least in the eyes of non-ballerinas), but she also masters both the frighteningly childish and the frighteningly sinful. I can think of only one line in the entire movie where I was aware of Natalie Portman rather than of her character and, well, that wasn’t her fault. It’s just that someone really wanted to foreshadow the lesbian sex with a female genitalia joke and no matter how much she tries, clearly Natalie Portman is too aware of it to completely convince an audience that virginal, innocent Nina is not.

My major actor props go to the supporting cast, though. And not to Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder either. Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel are brilliant in this film. Mila Kunis’ Lily is about the only thing that keeps Black Swan from being totally awful. She is scripted to bring in just enough humor to break up the dark madness; Mila Kunis took that and completely embodied to the role to make it larger than its initial purpose. Everytime she left the screen, I was sad to see her go. But she isn’t my favorite performance of the film. Vincent Cassel is completely amazing. Com-plete-ly a-maze-ing. He managed to hit just the perfect note. The character of Thomas Leroy could easily have been a one-note of creeper or a one-note of self-obsessed-director. But Vincent Cassel manages to embody both of those, and then other dimensions as well. At the beginning of the film, he makes a perfect creep. By the end of the film, he has shown just enough other sides to make you wonder if he was even all that creepy in the first place. Plus he’s French, which never hurts.

Black Swan is undoubtedly an artistic film. It is beautiful to watch, beautiful to hear, and appropriately disturbing. But is it good?

Even after getting some analysis written, I still can’t decide. The story is weak at best (and just short of moronic at worst). The Beth (Winona Ryder) character seems completely unnecessary. The film fails to find an appropriate balance between explaining too much and explaining too little, leaving the audience with the clear understanding that Nina is completely batshit, but also with a whole boatload of questions about why or how or what. Potential storylines or subtleties involving Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey) or her anorexia are completely skimmed over to the point where one wonders why they were included in the first place. Thinking back on the film through a critical lens, the whole thing appears absurd and poorly managed and, well, bad.

Except that it isn’t. Because even though there are parts of it that make absolutely no sense, the film does not fail in anyway, least of all it’s primary goal. The desired effect is achieved. It disturbs the audience, plants questions in their minds, and inspires consideration and reflection that is, at least in my case, longwinded and ongoing. And what makes a film “good” (which we will define for the moment as “a successful piece of art”) if not success in provoking thought?

Your mom is a rhetorical question.

(Fun fact for Human Target fans: Janet Montgomery – Ames – is also in this film. She’s one of the ballerinas. Apparently they only cast brunettes with good bone structure.)

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