Monday, January 24, 2011

On Further Review: Black Swan (2010)

By the time this posts I will have seen Black Swan three times. The first time was to see it because I wanted to see it. The second time was to see if my reaction to it the first time was in order and the third time was for this piece so I could remember the reason why it’s a film that really doesn’t belong in the Oscar race. This is not a great film but a grade C horror movie that if it didn't have a big director probably wouldn't have been taken seriously.

I’m going to mostly discount Natalie Portman’s performance in this. Even though I’m not a big fan of Portman, I don’t think it’s fair to pick on her or her performance. While I feel she isn’t completely right for the role, I don’t think my reservations are do to anything she does. I think any problems I do have are due entirely to director choices which have her starting in an uneasy and uncomfortable state and then pretty much staying with that one emotion through out. I don’t quite think it’s as bad as Jim Emerson said at the Scanners Blog on the Roger Ebert website that Portman had one emotion until the final few minutes when she then got a thirty second of another one, but I don't think it's good. On the other hand there are people who love Portman’s performance (she's won a Golden Globe) and how you react to the film will depend on how you take Portman, who is in pretty much every shot of the film.

Actually she’s not in every shot of the film, she’s in every close up of the film, because as anyone who has seen this movie knows this is a film of close ups. Pretty much the entire film is made up of shots of Natalie Portman from the waist up or higher. There are only a few medium or wide shots, its all close ups. This film is so intent on being in the face of Portman there are very few shots of any of the other characters except when they get close to her. It’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen in a movie. The whole film is pretty much just Portman’s face. That’s all fine and all but she’s not given anything to do. She is simply asked to look uncomfortable and she does. Yes, this creates and uneasy feeling but at the same time it becomes like looking at a statue or a painting for two hours with out changing your perspective by stepping forward or back or left or right; it's always the same basic view. While it's extremely claustrophobic after a while it gets real dull.
For me the notion of a film in close up is interesting, I think you could make a great film that way; but if you're going to do it why would you make one that is a ballet movie? Its a weird thing to do because you never really see anyone really dancing and the dance is vital since the plot hinges on the plot of the ballet. You see torsos and arms and you see feet, you see pieces but you never, well not ever, but almost never see whole people. The argument I’ve heard for that is that Portman was not a dancer so they had to cover for her, perhaps, but why cast her then? Neve Campbell was not a dancer when she worked with Robert Altman in The Company, but at least they showed her whole body.

I know differing effect, one is a drama, one is a proto-horror film, but at least the Company had a sense of people.

Speaking of horror, let’s talk about how clumsy Black Swan is in handling the tropes of a horror film.

To say that the film starts off over playing it’s hand is an understatement. From the first instant we are made uncomfortable by the shot choice, music and performances. There is no calm before the storm, its simply a storm that gets worse. That’s all well and good but if you don’t have a central character you can identify with and connect to the decent into madness is nothing we can sympathize with or be shocked by. In any good horror film of a similar nature you have to at least believe that the character that descends into madness isn’t crazy. Portman may not be padded room material but she is certainly on a high level of high strung . While not exactly the same think about films like Single White Female or Fatal Attraction where the woman who goes crazy, there is at least a moment or two where we believe that maybe they aren't nuts, that never happens here.

My next problem: The music is awful. It starts off gloom and doom and only gets worse. When the sex scene happens and the music became even more menacing I wasn’t certain how to react. Sure it was a “bad” thing to happen but didn’t Darren Aronofsky trust the audience to know that? Did he really have to beat us over the head with it?

Actually Aronofsky never seems to trust his audience at any point. I’m a fan of his films ( I'll be writing up The Fountain in a few weeks) but his work on this film is worse than many of the hack directors I’ve run across over the years. His handling of pretty much everything in this film is terrible. H's botched not only the technical aspects but also the themes in the film. Look at the whole theme of twinning and doubles that runs through everything, Aronofsky beats us over the head with it from the first subway ride to the final fade out. Are we so stupid that he has to direct us to seeing it in almost every instance?

It’s terrible.

I had a discussion with a friend recently about Aronofsky and horror. I don’t know how true it is, but he was telling me that Aronofsky has a great love of the genre but doesn’t have a feel for the genre as a director. He said that he’s been involved with a couple of horror films over the last few years but nothing came of them because his ideas didn’t match what the producers wanted. He said that David Twohy was brought in to direct Below because Aronofsky couldn’t get his script to work. I don’t know if any of it is true, but seeing what he’s done with Black Swan I’m not unwilling to accept the premise.

As I’ve said I’ve seen this film three times and each time it becomes clearer and clearer why the film doesn’t work, and trust me it doesn’t work if you really look at it. I keep picking out things that just don't work...or were done better in any number of low budget exploitation films.

It’s a mess.

It doesn’t deserve the acclaim.

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