Black Swan (Review)

I can’t even be bothered coming up with a Ga-Ga-gag.

I wasn’t expecting to learn so much when I bought tix to see Black Swan. I thought I would be seeing a pretty decent drama with elements of Single White Female, some awards hype potential and a virtuoso performance from Natalie Portman…

…and of course the fact that Portman and Mila Kunis were allegedly to shed their tutus and perform some mutual stretching exercises wasn’t a large deterrent.

All the same I learned quite a lot:

  1. I learned that Natalie Portman does indeed give a brave performance as Nina Sayers, the central figure in the film. A different kind of brave… deluded brave?
  2. I learned that there are levels of symbolic imagery, and that when coated on with a “cinematic paint sprayer” descriptions like subtle, nuanced and suggestive no longer apply. Let’s just say I draw the line at webbed toes.
  3. Similarly while in the right hands and in a great many situations CGI can enhance visuals and assist in realising a director’s “vision”, in the wrong hands or used unnecessarily it can detract and distract. Black Swan ultimately suffers death through CGI.
  4. I learned that there are certain actors who simply have a hammy style that lends itself to hammy, clichéd, “wannabe important and meaningful but really is just overwrought schlock” films. Winona Ryder, Barbara Hershey and Vincent Cassel are among them.
  5. I learned that thanks to two scenes – really one in particular – Black Swan Redband or Black Swan Portman-Kunis will be a google/videos staple for decades to come, especially in the male 15 – 40 demographic…
  6. I learned that mysteriously “leaking” such info has probably guaranteed that this dreck will make a profit and get more punters through the gate.

It worked with me unfortunately.

But alas this fuzzy grey quacker never got the chance to become the fabulous and beautiful swan. It remained an ugly duckling.

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Back to the supposedly “brave” performance by Natalie Portman.

Her Nina Sayers is an annual aspirant for leading roles in her prestigious ballet troupe– and this season the group’s director Thomas (pronounced Toe-Muss, cause it’s cooler) has decided to take on Swan Lake.

Nina has been married for a very long time, her entire life revolves around, and is devoted to, ballet. She lives with her mother, an ex-dancer who retired once falling pregnant with Nina, and they both seem to be drawing too much from Nina’s success and failures.

Now maybe it’s the pressure that comes along with striving, training and desiring just a little too much for years on end at the elite level;

  • maybe it’s the bleeding toes, sprained ankles and aching muscles from countless hours of practise;
  • maybe it’s the creepy director who continuously takes verbal potshots at Nina openly doubting her abilities, yet every five minutes tries to slime his way into her tutu;
  • maybe it’s the clingy stage-Mom living needfully and vicariously through her fragile daughter…
  • Or maybe, just maybe… at 40 odd kilos, with your tiny stomach screaming for sustenance as the dancing burns still more calories the body doesn’t have to spare – and with 30 other tiny anxious aspirants desperately staring mental daggers and wanting each other to fall at the wrong moment…

Whatever the reason, Nina is a little wound up.

Even landing the plumb lead role only leads to more nifty footwork at home when her Mother (Barbara Hershey) takes a polite “no thanks” to an impromptu celebration around 37 steps too far. The arduous training sessions, repetition and commitment needed to fully inhabit the role of the Swan Queen only exacerbate the pressure cooker environment, and with Nina stretching, training and dressing away from the main group as the “star” of the show she lacks genuine support when she perhaps most needs it.

Just… yowza!

Enter Lily, the new anti-Nina who has just arrived from elsewhere to replace Thomas’ previous ingénue and former troupe centrepiece Beth (Winona Ryder working to pay off shoplifting fines), who has been “retired” somewhat against her will at the sinfully old age of 30ish. Lily isn’t concerned about perfection, she doesn’t dwell on minor missteps and failures, she drinks, smokes, swears and jokes around.

All of these being definite Nina-no-nos. It seems like fate that these two will continue to cross paths… a million pasty, pimpled Youtube users demand it!

Cassel is intense and demanding as Toe-Muss but toes a fine line of believability and menace. You can never tell exactly what Mother’s real motivation is for her daughter’s career, does she want to be a friend, mentor, coach or counsellor? And of course Lily the anti-Nina hangs around doing everything that Nina never dared do, but perhaps always wanted to.

With all this going on it shouldn’t be surprising that Nina starts seeing things out of the corner of her eye.

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As the pressure builds towards the opening performances and the grand premiere tensions run high, offhand comments are overly analysed, the dancers grow suspicious of one another and Thomas is always in the background demanding more than mere perfection.

The first hour of Black Swan builds well. I am obviously no ballet aficionado (more a Step Up 2 that Streetz guy) but I never got bored with the practise and rehearsals – and there is quite a bit.

The last 40 minutes though let things get out of hand.

In the civilised world it is OK not to like or understand ballet, but if you casually dismiss it publicly it is somehow just an admission of a lack of refinement on your part, that you just “don’t get it”.

I am positive that the fact that (pre-Australian release) Black Swan had an 88% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes means that perhaps this extends to films about ballet. The last 40 minutes started ominously with some baffling CGI and some “did I see that?” moments, then continued to become more and more ridiculous until I was basically just chuckling away to myself in the seat.

I can’t stress this enough – the last 40 minutes of Black Swan are some of the clumsiest and just plain worst that I have seen in years. When at the culmination of a performance the ballet audience applaud in wonderment I felt like applauding too…

… but I was doing so out of sarcasm.

Final Rating – 5.5 / 10. My One-Third rule applies here: if more than 1/3 of any film sucks the entire film sucks by association. The final third of this film should be reported to PETA, as it killed this Black Swan.

About OGR

While I try to throw a joke or two into proceedings when I can all of the opinions presented in my reviews are genuine. I don't expect that all will agree with my thoughts at all times nor would it be any fun if you did, so don't be shy in telling me where you think I went wrong... and hopefully if you think I got it right for once. Don't be shy, half the fun is in the conversation after the movie.
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