Posted on February 24, 2011 by


Pre-Oscar Meditations: Perfectionism, patriarchy and Black Swan‘s lush, lurid nightmare.

By Soheil Rezayazdi

Frenzied emotions, expressive costumes, booming musical cues — this is the stuff of cinematic melodrama. I eat it up. Frazzled minds were made for the movies. Melodrama, as a genre, lets filmmakers run wild. It lets gifted stylists visualize repression and festering anger with filmic flourishes. A boring melodrama has its characters mope and talk. An engaging one packs the screen with visual manifestations of those characters’ most primal instincts: jealousy, love, fury. In life, these things tend to simmer. In melodrama, they pop, like the red on James Dean’s jacket. You don’t win points for subtlety here.

Darren Aronofsky, the director who flogged us all with the acid-dipped D.A.R.E. shirt he called Requiem for a Dream, is up for this task. This guy only carries blunt instruments. His films hammer; they don’t scalpel. Aronofsky hails from the more-is-more school of filmmaking, which places a premium on viscera over intellect. As such, he tends to live in that ghetto critics call “style over substance.” But now he’s given us Black Swan, his most satisfying movie to date. This is a terrific film about the creative process — its paranoid rivalries and cycles of self-hatred — told with the broad, bold strokes of horror and melodrama.

Black Swan dives into the mind of an insecure perfectionist (Natalie Portman). I’ve known the type. To a large extent, I am the type. Portman doesn’t effuse raw talent. She can’t “lose herself” in “transcendent” moments of artistry, as her superior (Vincent Cassel) often notes. She’s too self-aware, too rigid. But she works harder than anyone. She compensates for natural skill with borderline unhealthy devotion. If ballet were an essay test, she’d be the girl with flashcards.

For Portman’s character, people like Lily (Mila Kunis) ruin everything. Kunis doesn’t have the dedication or the outward austerity. But she has “it.” Natural, nonchalant talent. She’s the type to throw things together in an hour, only to usurp your months of practice. All inspiration, little perspiration. She doesn’t need to rehearse and repeat — unlike you. Her raw skill, worst of all, only highlights your inadequacy. Kunis nails this role, playing a vicious version of her chilled-out Hawaiian from Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

I connected with Black Swan on a personal level, if you couldn’t tell. With everything I do (which includes writing this piece), I long for Kunis’ effortless style. Panache, gusto, grace — I want to embody these words. But I usually settle for stilted, over-rehearsed, Portman-like contortions. I am an over-thinker, incapable of “losing myself” in those mythical moments of transcendence. The instant such moments appear, they tend to dissipate. It’s like lucid dreaming; I just can’t do it. I recognize it’s happening, and I freeze.

For people like me (and Portman, who’s a much crazier case, thank you), few things trigger jealousy like a display of flamboyant, natural skill. I think: Why bother writing when someone with more instinctive gifts will always undercut anything I produce? Why spend hours massaging out sentences when some punchy blogger can double my word count with the flick of a wrist? And then I think about that. And then I think some more.

Black Swan captures what it feels like to fall down such rabbit holes of creative jealousy and self-loathing. It’s not a pleasant feeling, but it’s one ripe for cinematic picking. Aronofsky has a ball with it. He blends two genres almost defined by excess — horror and melodrama — into a funhouse of the torrid and lurid. The film takes its clear inspirations (Repulsion, Carrie, The Piano Teacher) and adds a schlocky sheen that borders on camp. For some, it’ll be too much. Portman’s ludicrous bedroom and the black-white costumes have all the subtlety of a moralistic silent film (white equals good! black equals bad!). For me, two of the film’s most remarkable qualities derive here: its otherworldly atmosphere and its sly lack of self-seriousness. Buried beneath the dread, body-horror, and sexual repression, Black Swan has real laughs. Consider the shock-cut during Portman’s masturbation scene or Kunis’ disarming aside about a “lezzie wet dream.”

I enjoyed Black Swan for the same reasons I smiled at Twilight: It uses cinematic means to explore a feeling. Those endless crane shots of Patt-Stew staring at each other in Twilight were silly, but they also got at the sensation of teen love, when emotions burst and the rest of the world disappears. Like that movie, Black Swan is beyond heavy-handed. But its overwrought tone jibes with the story, which seethes nothing but the heightened emotions of real life: mistrust, lust, frustration.

Finally, the film’s massive elephant: gender politics. What, if anything, does Black Swan say about patriarchy? For its entire runtime, we watch women literally break themselves to impress a man — Cassel. We also watch women act petty and hysterical. The film doesn’t seem to comment on any of this. And it lets Cassel off without any clear comeuppance. Is this wrong? I don’t know. But Aronofsky doesn’t portray the men in Black Swan with much sympathy. They all operate with varying degrees of sleaze (the clear winner being the lecherous subway man — Black Swan‘s “ass to ass!” moment, if you will). I’d be lying if I said I knew the answers after one viewing. The film didn’t offend me, however, because its nightmarish, fable-like tone distanced it from any real-world reading on gender. It stars a virginal damsel in distress. She stumbles into a haunted house. It’s filled with the ugly motivations of beautiful people. And so she escapes with a pirouette.

Soheil Rezayazdi

This post originally appeared on Print the Legend. Republished with permission.