Notes on “Black Swan” (2010)

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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12 Responses

  1. Ben JB says:

    Two things (more having to do with your argument than the movie*):

    a) Portman masturbates alone in her room before recoiling in terror at a hallucination of her mother in the corner
    What makes you think that’s a hallucination? One of the aspects of Hershey’s character is that she has trouble with boundaries when it comes to Portman–which we see both in relation to Portman’s body (Hershey grooming Portman) and to Portman’s room (which is why Portman tries to bar her room’s door). So it’s not hard to imagine that Hershey is actually there in the room. On the other side, Portman has some hallucinations, so it’s possible that it is a hallucination–but what evidence made you think that this scene was a hallucination?

    b) The one problem I have with the film
    Is an interesting thing to say considering that you gesture towards other problems you have with the film: (1) it “verges on symbolism for dummies”; (2) the swan-transformation scene is “borderline-goofy”; (3) “he also uses Winona Ryder’s character Beth to do the same” (which is to say that he has included structurally superfluous material–unless that structural superfluity is purposeful to some end). I can see how most of these problems are subsumable under the problem of Aronofsky not delving deeply into his materials, but that’s a connection that I think you could make for the reader. For example, why is simple symbolism at odds with delving deeply into the material?

    *I enjoyed the movie, but I care more about solid argumentation.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Ben JB says:

      Actually, I enjoyed the movie too. I hope that was clear, even though I had some issues with it.

      a. I can’t say for sure that the masturbation scene was a hallucination, but I also don’t think we can say for sure it wasn’t a hallucination. There is a general atmosphere of hallucination in the film- what some filmmakers call a “rubber reality” tone. There are a number of scenes in which we can say for sure that there’s a hallucination going on, but because the film is told from Nina’s perspective and we’re fairly sure that she’s hallucinating, it calls into question nearly everything that happens after the first hallucination, which if I remember right was the passing herself on the sidewalk scene. So, I tended to see the more extreme scenes as being at least possibly hallucinations. In that scene, it seemes less likely to me that the mother was actually sleeping in her daughter’s room than it was a manifestation of the girl’s fears about her sexuality. Also, because Nina is shown locking her door so often, it seemed less likely that she had slept and masturbated without either locking the door or just looking to her right. Of course, I could be totally wrong, but I think a plausible case can be made either way. Again, one of the things I liked about the film, is how many aspects of the story were of a questionable reality. Another example was the letch on the train- I assume that it was real because they didn’t tell us it was a hallucination, but I can’t be sure. And I think the film succeeds by making us question the reality of nearly every scene. I don’t see this as a flaw.

      In terms of my one real problem with the film, I just don’t think of my other gripes as being actual problems with the film. Aronofsky made certain aesthetic decisions that maybe weren’t to my tastes, but I see them as matters of opinion. This might sound elitist, but because he’s the director and it’s his film, I basically think he was right.

      I mean, I thought the symbolism was a bit obvious, but frankly I see that as a matter of perspective and I do assume that Aronofsky knew what he was doing there. It was a conscious choice. I think he does include some superfluous material and characters, but again I’m not sure that I’d consider that a problem with the film as much as a stylistic choice. I don’t think it was a mistake on his part to go over the same plot points obsessively, since the film is about artistic obsession. So, while those aspects weren’t exactly to my tastes, I saw it as a matter of my opinion more than an actual problem with the film.

      So, when I saw the only real problem I have is that he didn’t delve as deeply as he could have into some of the themes the movie raises, it’s really that this is the only thing about the film I would change if I could. He keeps a lot of balls in the air in this movie and sort of rushes through some of the themes. Some things I felt were glossed over. I would have liked to see more with Cassel and Ryder’s stories in particular. I suppose part of the glossed-over feel comes from the film’s mysteriousness about its particulars. It felt like a dream and I left unsure I had a handle on the characters or the themes.

      But, again, I’m not even sure this is something I’d call a problem. Aronofsky is an incredibly controlled filmmaker and with these sorts of directors, I’m not sure that they don’t simply know more than we do about the choices they’ve made.Report

      • Ben JB in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Thanks for that response, Rufus–it cleared up a lot of what confused me in your post (and seems to be about the same length!). I somewhat suspected you meant something specific when you said that there was “one problem I have with the film”; and it’s clear now how you distinguish between aspects you see as choices you disagree with vs. missteps on the part of the director. God knows I’ve felt that way about certain films.Report

  2. E.C. Gach says:

    The movie was amazing to watch. Unfortunately there just wasn’t much there that felt new or different in the actual content. Crazy people. Yes.

    Just very underwhelmed by the skin deepness.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      Yeah, I sort of felt the same. I’m just not sure if it won’t require repeated viewings. Requiem for a Dream seemed like one long montage when I first saw it, and pretty superficial at that. But, the second time, I caught a lot more. There’s a scene in which the hospital orderlies are shoving a feeding tube down Ellen Burnstein’s throat while discusssing their weekend in Las Vegas that I completely missed the first time, but which is one of the most devastating things I’ve ever seen in a film. Arronofsky’s style is a bit manic. I have to see Black Swan a few more times before I can say if I’m missing something about the story, or if there’s just something missing.Report

  3. Bob says:

    Two points:

    1. I did not care about any of the characters. (The same as I did not care about any of the characters in The Wrestler.)

    2. As soon as it became clear that Nina was suffering hallucinations, early on, every scene became questionable. The entire movie could have been anyone’s nightmare.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Bob says:

      (The same as I did not care about any of the characters in The Wrestler.)
      Really? I felt sympathetic for Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler. (Part of that might have been that I’m a fan of Mickey Rourke though) It was definitely different in Black Swan- I see what you mean. I asked my wife afterwards if she felt sympathetic towards Natalie Portman’s character and neither of us really did. She’s sort of an unlikeable character. On the other hand, it seemed somewhat intentional. I think it’s important that none of the other characters seem to like her except for Mila Kunis’s character, who is definitely a questionable character anyway. At first, you think the other ballerinas are all catty, but by the end, I wasn’t sure if they weren’t right in staying away from her!Report

      • Bob in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Regarding The Wrestler, and not wishing to change the subject.

        I left the theater unmoved. But honestly I find the entire wrestling phenomenon weird, I’m being kind. So I no doubt entered with a jaundiced attitude. The subject matter of a “washed up” anyone is common. Perhaps, to Aronofsky’s credit he did not turn up the schmaltz to eleven. That said, I remain unmoved.

        One last comment. Leaving Swan it occurred to me that it and Wrestler dealt with careers relatively short in nature. Just a thought.Report

        • Rufus F. in reply to Bob says:

          I’m not familiar with wrestling either, but I’ve got friends who are fans and they tell me the film is very accurate for whatever that’s worth. I did sort of think the same thing when we left the theatre- Black Swan almost works as a companion piece to The Wrestler. In fact, they have a very similar storyline and plot structure, don’t they? I don’t want to give anything away to people who haven’t seen one or the other, but I think there are plot points that occur in both films.Report

  4. Sheldon says:

    My wife and I hated every frame of this film (and we both liked The Wrestler) – it was torture to sit through. First and most important, there was no development arc to the film or to the Portman character at all – it, and she, started out way over the top and stayed at that level throughout. Second, every part of the film was a giant cliche – and surely we’re not the only viewers to have been distracted by Barbara Hershey’s terrible face lift, which made her role as the domineering mother even more offputting. Third, the grotesqueries in the film were excessive to a fault and completely overshadowed any human element. Finally, despite all her reported hard work, Portman’s dancing was just awful. We’ll stick with The Red Shoes, thank you.Report

  5. Will says:

    Freddie and I did a few League movie/TV podcasts back in the day. Maybe we should revive that tradition . . .Report