Black Swan is a movie that alternates between being highly bizarre and unsettling. In the end, though, what it ultimately was was disturbing. It is a movie about obsession, stress, and pressure. It is about one ballerina (Natalie Portman) and her absolute desire to be the best at what she does. Or, alternatively, it is about one poor girl and her inability to know when enough is enough.
The Dark Side of Expectations
Natalie Portman shows us a girl who is fragile, fearful, yet absolutely dedicated to her art. She is vulnerable but so determined as to be unhealthy in her obsession. For, above all, she wants to have the lead role in Swan Lake; she wants to be the Swan Queen. Now this may sound a rather silly premise, but it is not silly at all. Through this movie we see a nasty, nasty example of how entertainers and people in general can follow their dreams beyond rationality. And, all along the way, they are often encouraged to do so by friends and family. They are told to do their best, to focus on the goal with a drive that is near inhuman. Have you ever had to concentrate so utterly on something that it feels almost as if it defines you? It can happen, to the point where you can forget to live; friends are forgotten, habits such as eating and sleeping become distracting and feel unnecessary. In Black Swan, we see this and the awful consequences of following one's dream to the point of self-destruction.
The big motivator in this film lies in the nature of the role of the Swan Queen. The ballerina who performs the Swan Queen must embody grace, nobility, and fragility; and Natalie Portman's character has that down pat. However, she must also play out the role of the Black Swan, which is totally opposite. The Black Swan is dark, seductive, aggressive. Dominant. The main thread of the movie follows Natalie Portman trying to embrace that side of herself in order to depict it naturally on the stage. And, given her innocent and kind nature, that process is difficult and wrenching.
When is it Too Much?
As someone who has played a couple of intense roles in theater, I can attest to the fact that putting yourself into a dark character and doing it well can be highly disturbing. What makes Black Swan even worse is that the ballerina's personality here is directly at odds with the personality she needs to assume with the Black Swan. To take on that role, she must allow herself to let her inhibitions go, and to dance more extremely. And, as part of training for that, everyone seems to tell her that she has to let go in her daily life as well. Thus we watch on helplessly as Natalie Portman allows herself to fall. It is as shocking and as harsh a change in personality as can be imagined. And, given the seriousness of such a shattering alteration, many strange and disturbing things happen to her, all exacerbated from the stress of preparing for such a role. Hallucinations, disorders, hostility towards loved ones and strangers... It is hard to think of another movie that psychologically deconstructs a character so nastily.
A huge part of the problem is the fact that the ballerina has no system of support and, for that, the movie seemed a little bit unbelievable. Her mother is harsh, stern, and unforgiving. Their relationship is completely dysfunctional; she is one of those moms that requires her daughter to be the absolute best ballerina, not really minding or noticing her daughter's own immensely negative reaction to the stress and expectation. Similarly, Natalie Portman's director/choreographer is as sleazy as he is demanding; he, above all, unwittingly pushes her down the path of darkness and corruption. She doesn't seem to have any friends at all. There is nobody who can really help her, and the one ballerina friend she does make (Mila Kunis) seems to exist only to compel Natalie Portman to throw aside her inhibitions with greater abandon.
It was not without flaws, however. The director's way of illustrating Natalie Portman's fall was very strange. Her hallucinations are symbolic of the role she is taking on, but often it feels too overt and obvious. I won't mention specifics, but it did feel as if more subtlety would have been better. In addition, I'm not sure I understand why the recurring theme of sexual deviancy kept coming up. The role of Black Swan is one that involves being seductive and sexy, but the amount of sexual material in the film just was too much and didn't feel relevant. It was indicative of her increasing loss of inhibitions and self, but it was another area where I felt less would have been more.
In the end, Black Swan was incredibly disturbing. I know I've said that a couple times already, but it is the one word that describes it utterly. I can't help but admire it for its effectiveness in portraying one ballerina's descent into insanity, but I also can't help but want to look away. I doubt I'll watch it again because it was just that intense. That makes it a great movie, but also a bit scary. Should I like the movie because it made me want to run screaming from the theater? I don't know about that...
+ 10 for being an incredibly intense and effective psychological drama/horror
- .5 because nothing is perfect
- .5 for overly blatant symbolism that distracts from the story
- .5 for too much focus on 'sexy time' that had little relevance to the story