Spoilers below for Black Swan, The Wrestler, Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain.
Let me tell you a story:
An individual, an expert in their field, becomes obsessed with something they see as completely unobtainable, maybe it’s something impossible, or something they themselves find impossible to do, maybe if they did this thing or found this thing, it would be dangerous to them, nevertheless, they want to find it. They become obsessed with finding it, so obsessed in fact that the journey to finding this thing or doing this thing completely destroys them and the only way out is by achieving this final thing which may or may not result in their deaths.
Pretty interesting story right? How about if I tell it to you again, and again? How about a third and fourth time? No?
Well Darren Arranofsky thinks he can. In his time as a filmmaker he’s made a living off reproducing the above plot almost entirely plot point for plot point and substituting mathematics for drug addiction, wrestling and ballet. His scripts and films at first appear high art, something akin to David Lynch or Dario Argento but they have all the artistic quality of a Paul Verhoven flick.
I’m not putting his films down. Although I despise The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream, both of which are silly overblown pieces of nonsense and one of which (I still can’t understand why) is considered a classic. I feel that Pi is quite a fun little film, and The Wrestler (whilst a mess of cliches) at least is anchored by a pretty good performance by Mickey Rourke. Black Swan though is a different kettle of fish.
I liked Black Swan, it was a fun film to watch. I came out thinking the same thing I thought about Rosemary’s Baby, The Fly, Jacob’s Ladder, Carrie and pretty much every body horror film ever made. But then I thought about what people were saying about the film. That there was an element of complex intellectualism going on somewhere within. That this was somehow both a completely big silly horror film, and an intelligent study on the intense pressue that playing dual identities can have. Black Swan is only one of these films. It is not the latter.
First off, let’s look at the main story of the film. A timid dancer who dresses all in white, gets the part of the Swan Queen in a production of Swan Lake. She is criticised for not being more like the Black Swan. So she becomes more like the Black Swan. In the finale of the production of Swan Lake, the Swan Queen kills herself, and the dancer kills herself during the same moments. This is after four mentions (count them) in the opening half an hour, spelling out the plot of Swan Lake, LIKE IT WAS THIS IMPORTANT. If you were writing an intelligent, complex film which mirrors the plot of Swan Lake (which is a good idea), the worst, and most obvious thing to do, is to continually tell the audience how the story of Swan Lake ends. Because let’s face it, not everyone wants to know how the film their watching is going to end.
Now, how about the dance atmosphere itself? That doesn’t hold up particularly well either, the dancers we see are bitchy about talent, looks and people’s age. The background characters don’t get a look in other than that and the main cast don’t fare too well either. Natalie Portman’s character is seen throwing up in a toilet. She has a mother who was a failed dancer (and shock…blames it all on her daughter) and appears to have forced her into this lifestyle. Portman, as the White Swan is constantly seen wearing white, throughout the film (until the end). When we meet Mila Kunas’ character she is shown wearing all black, smoking (in a non-smoking building…oooooh) and with a tattoo.
Just a Pi ends with it’s main character performing surgery with a drill, Requiem for a Dream concludes with it’s main character’s all retreating into drug fuelled fantasies that may kill them. Just as The Fountain ends with the future Tom burning alive to bring the tree of life back, so The Wrestler ends with Mickey Rourke performing a possibly final stunt in the ring. And so to does Black Swan end with Natalie Portman in her possible final moments.
I didn’t hate Black Swan, I actually quite enjoyed it, but I enjoyed it despite everything I’ve written about. There’s a fun little horror film in that mess of cliche. But I’m jumping on this now, I’ve had enough of bad writing in film, enough of poorly flagged moments and terrible characters. The Social Network proved that film doesn’t have to be enjoyed despite certain things. Great, classic films can still be made, and Arranofsky hasn’t made any of them.
Maybe one day though.