Evaluating any movie is a matter of personal taste. Filmmakers who deal in the extreme naturally provoke extreme reactions. That’s my way of saying that I couldn’t stand Black Swan. In fact, I had a violent response to the film, which I saw in its debut screening at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend.
Some people in the audience thought it was brilliant. Women I know who have spent time in the world of ballet were particularly impressed by director Darren Aronofsky’s depiction of that cloistered life. I can see that, and I certainly wouldn’t say anything negative about Natalie Portman’s vivid performance as a childlike ballerina who is battling her own womanhood, under the eagle eye of an overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey). She also falls prey to an imperious and manipulative ballet master, well played by Vincent Cassel, who is—
—famous for his sexual conquests—and equally notorious for discarding his former lovers in the troupe.
The heightened emotions of ballet make it ripe for melodrama, but that’s not what Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin (working from Heinz’s story) are out to achieve. This is a psychological horror film built, one might say, on a melodramatic foundation. It teases its audience, deliberately blurring the line between reality and fantasy, which parallels the inner torment of its main character. If you make the mistake of digesting the movie on a literal basis, you’re in for a sucker punch. This is a fever dream, punctuated by scenes of hallucination, masturbation and self-mutilation.
If one is to judge a film by how well it fulfills its intentions, then Black Swan is a success. It stands out from the crowd by dint of sheer audaciousness, and originality. On an intellectual basis, I thought it was ludicrous; on an emotional level, I found it a complete and utter turn-off.