Friday, December 24, 2010

Pussy Control


by James Hansen

Mirroring its own central conceit in several unfortunate ways, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan functions as a double-edged sword on which it repeatedly impales itself. At once an artistic “prestige picture” and a Tex Avery-esque Looney Tunes riff on Tchaikovsky’s famed ballet Swan Lake, Black Swan tempestuously navigates these concepts alongside the similarly fractured mental journey of doomed protagonist Nina Sayers/The Swan Queen (Natalie Portman).

Nina’s personality splits when she is chosen to perform both Swan roles in the highly anticipated ballet. She must be The White Swan of purity and precision and also The Black Swan of fear, desire, and improvisation. With mounting pressure from director Thomas Leroy/The Gentleman (Vincent Cassel) and a unique relationship with new girl Lily/The Black Swan (Mila Kunis), Nina tries to loosen up from her White Swan tendencies to achieve artistic perfection by embodying both states of mind. This mixture of reality and fantasy, good and evil, failure and success pushes Nina beyond anything she has experienced before. She is in a new, strange world which she must either journey through or become lost within.


Black Swan’s journey quickly reveals itself as having little to do with art or artists, but rather dicks, pussies, and earth-shaking orgasms. Thomas chooses Nina for The Swan Queen after a timid request for a second audition results in a seductive, unwanted kiss in which Nina bites his lip. Thomas questions Nina’s sex life and suggests she have sex. After multiple masturbation attempts with no “success,” Nina goes out with Lily and explores her Black Swan side. With barely a hint at lesberation, Nina is rolling on E and howling in her bed via Lily’s magical cunnilingus. Nina’s orgasm is more than a sign of sexual pleasure, but one of the perfection she seeks in life, work, and art. Still, this false moment of perfection leaves Nina lost in time, late for work, and threatens her success in the ballet. Her climactic scenes late in the film with Lily and Thomas indicate a further presumption of sexual pleasure as cataclysmic, threatening, overly demanding, and strangely confining. The residual effects of sexuality understood in this manner come through in Nina’s final swan song, which make her choices harder to stomach. Threatened by a perfect pleasure outside of her art, she destroys it.


Yet – no matter the bizarre, enormously entertaining, trash genre hijinx – Black Swan remains a thuddingly literal extension of Swan Lake and purely surface level. Nina’s existential crisis, fear of failure, and ambiguous sexuality plays out as a cartoonish fodder. Instead of exploring the ideas of psycho-bisexuality, artistic creativity, or pressures on femininity which seem inherent in the mtaerial, screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin loads the script with softballs (“lose yourself”) which they pay off by literalizing the terse statements. This strangely unthoughtful approach creates a checklist for Nina’s tragically battered psyche and quickly knocks off each aspect as Black Swan plods forward becoming simultaneously more entertaining (as The Black Swan of hilarious trash spectacle) and disappointing (as The White Swan of an artistically considered film) as it goes along. (For more on this, see Martha Polk’s terrific critique).


That it devolves into sexual games is a further indication that Aronofsky’s direction of underlying dualisms is far from complex. Constantly maintaining an obvious grip on the Swan Lake story told several time throughout the film, Black Swan shows neither controlled mania or tight composition of cinema made by true artists. In a journey of a fracture mind, everything is perfectly clear and logical. Unfortunately, this also means that Black Swan works only off statements, rather than instilling thought or ideas. By bringing everything pointedly to the surface, Black Swan chooses to stay shallow.

Entertaining enough for a B, but thoughtfulness earns it a C+

3 comments:

Sean said...

First, nice to see you all posting and updating again.
Second, I have to disagree by and large with your review. While I agree the film lacked subtlety, I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing. I don't think that because the film was so overt that it automatically meant it was a shallow film. I also don't think the film was as gratuitously sexual as you saw it as. That's not to say the film wasn't very seductive and sensual, I just don't think the sexuality was as over the top as you presented it here. Perhaps I'm biased cause I have a thing for ballet and Aronofsky is one of my fav's but I just don't see it as being any worse than his other films. In fact, as far as Aronofsky's recurring theme of control and a loss of control I think Black Swan here is his most effective film with the only other one potentially rivaling it being Requiem.

James Hansen said...

Thanks for the comment, Sean. We'll be a lot more active in 2011, so get ready!

As far as BLACK SWAN goes, I think it's maybe Aronofsky's most purely "enjoyable" movie, but, as the review says, the literalness kept its surprises from being very surprising. In lots of ways, it didn't go "Black Swan" enough for me. Too concerned with precision, technique, and being Swan Lake for its own good. Doesn't mean it's not entertaining (hence my confused 'grading' of it) but I just don't think it does many things that are very interesting.

As far as sex goes, it doesn't necessarily have to be negative. I'm just pointing it out more to suggest that the film's focus isn't what many people have claimed. Unfortunately, I think it accepts her sexuality as odd and dangerous rather than seductive and powerful - that's the real problem (and perhaps why women's groups and feminist critics have been ripping on it, and rightfully so if you ask me).

Thanks again for the comment. They seem few and far between these days (similar to our "recent" method of writing, I suppose).

JeanRZEJ said...

I was working out some thoughts about how you could see the 'bland to the point of predicting the lines 5 minutes ahead of time' dialogue as a boon to the film rather than a hindrance. I was thinking that this obviousness reduces the need, especially in Holly 'use exposition at every turn' wood, to explain every detail because everyone knows what's coming, so it allows the director to telegraph plot details quickly and move on to other things. You could compare it to Ancient Greek theater where everyone knew every story being told and there were absolutely no surprises as far as the plot goes, so everything came down to the writing and execution. Replace the myth part with the dialogue here and you have cinematography and mis en scene speaking and then it has a sort of odd slant - in the context of a 'known base' of dialogue and story it then becomes a film whose interesting details are found purely in the visual components and visual language. It's like getting at the avant garde by pacifying the audience with terrible stuff which they won't enjoy. The question then becomes - is the visual side of the film interesting? My answer - sometimes! I think it's a pretty common approach among genre filmmakers, whether they do it intentionally or not, and as unnecessary as it may be... it is an American film, a place with virtually no public funding for the arts, so it's sort of necessary. Sort of. Even though The Temptation of St. Tony is similar in many ways but better in every way and was probably made for far less money... it's American film. It needs a handicap.