The Black Swan backlash

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is still attracting a large proportion of backlash, months after it peaked at the box office. So, asks Simon: what’s the problem?

This article contains spoilers for Black Swan.

You don’t have to search very far at all to find divisions where Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is concerned. The film, which won Natalie Portman a Best Actress Oscar this year, is, depending on whom you talk to, a flat-out masterpiece, or a load of old unbelievable bumph. And the anti-reaction to it appears as loud and strong as the noise made by its champions.

It’s not unusual for Oscar-winning movies to attract such backlashes, to be fair. Even this year, The King’s Speech, a really solid, very good drama, has attracted negative criticism in some part because it was so successful. Never mind that director Tom Hooper, his cast and his crew didn’t set out to win awards. The film is being slighted because it dared to do so.

I don’t think that The King’s Speech is anywhere near the film of the year, although I like it a lot. But it doesn’t suddenly go bad just because it’s winning things. (I do appreciate that some people genuinely don’t like it, by the way.)

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Black Swan, though, seems deeper in every sense. The anti-reaction to this one is dividable into various camps. There are those who didn’t think it should have won awards. There are those who didn’t think that it was the ballet movie they thought they were being sold. And there were those who simply didn’t like it.

I’ll come off the fence here, then. I loved it. I wasn’t sure quite what I was going to get, and I certainly wasn’t expecting an Argento-tinged descent into madness. But it remains one of the few films of recent times that’s genuinely surprised me, and taken turns I didn’t, at least in the early stages, see coming.

Darren Aronofsky, for me, is a director who veers between baffling and brilliant, yet Pi and The Wrestler are both outstanding pieces of cinema. I can quite happily join in Requiem For A Dream arguments, too. But Black Swan? His best film for me, and I can hear the keyboards of commenters tapping in rage even as I put these words together.

Where Black Swan works for me is in unnerving me so much. Portman’s central performance is brilliant, Winona Ryder’s cameo one of the most shocking moments in years on the big screen. And while the ending was, ultimately, one that was mapped out quite early in the film, it didn’t matter. It was right, and fitted the material.

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This was the devastatingly-told story of one person destroying themselves to achieve perfection. Portman gets across that obsession terrifically well, and while I think Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right is as award-worthy a performance, I can’t think of many who would be willing and able to do what Portman achieves here.

The backlash, though, has been severe against Black Swan. And there are strong, constructive points that can’t be ignored. Chatting to Gaye, the superhero who gets all the words and pictures in place on this site, her argument has always been that Portman’s character gets no pleasure whatsoever from achieving her life goal. When she’s cast in the role of a lifetime, that’s the one point of the film that she should surely emote a hint of pleasure, but she never does so.

Furthermore, Nina never seems to get a single drop of pleasure out of dancing at any point in the film. For someone to put themselves through so much to be able to dance professionally, is it too much of a stretch to suggest that Nina should get at least some fun out of it?

One female friend of mine went further, arguing that Nina represented “a man’s fantasy of what crazy bitch ballerinas are like”.

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There’s further debate, too. Frustration has been vented at Vincent Cassel’s character, who some find doesn’t fit the tone of the piece at all. It’s his job to drive Portman’s Nina to the absolute brink of self-destruction in search of the perfect performance, and yet, whenever I speak to anyone who’s worked on any kind of movie or TV set, his is the one character they always call bullshit on. Directors aren’t like that. Cassel’s performance is over the top. They’re sound arguments.

But the main reason for the backlash, I’d argue, is how the film was sold. On the one hand, it was clearly genius, bringing in box office receipts beyond pretty much everyone involved’s wildest dreams. Yet, as the clamour of praise grew louder, and the marketing more intense, the anti-reaction was inevitable, and in the case of Black Swan, far more intense than we’re used to.

Go back to that original trailer for the film. There were two different movies being sold there, I’d argue, and neither of them were the one that Darren Aronofsky made.

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On the one hand, you could easily be left thinking that you’re getting an erotic thriller of sorts, such is the prominence of the lesbian sex scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. On the other, there’s an intense ballet film. It’s a masterclass in appealing to two stereotypical demographics in one promo, and the effectiveness of it can’t be understated.

But, popcorn in hand, a large proportion of people who saw Black Swan absolutely weren’t expecting what they got, and didn’t really get what they were sold. Because this is horror. Excellent, psychological horror, where the narrative is deliberately in shades of grey, and the line between what’s real and what isn’t as blurred as possible. It’s no guarantee that, if you react to that, you’re going to love the film. But there’s a very strong chance that you will.

If you don’t? Or can’t buy into the premise? Then Black Swan isn’t a sitting on the fence film, really, and the outpouring of scorn towards it continues to grow each day. Even now, the stories keep trickling. The most recent was that Natalie Portman only did a small proportion of her own dancing in the film. Well, sheesh. Next, you’ll be telling me that Roger Moore didn’t do many of his Bond stunts.

I maintain that Black Swan is challenging, gripping cinema, and for me, personally, it’s comfortably one of the best American films I’ve seen in years. And it’s great that it’s so divisive. Not in one of those snobbish, holier than thou ways, where one opinion is right and one is wrong. Rather, the arguments on both sides are pertinent, and if the intention of a film is to provoke some kind of reaction, then Black Swan absolutely manages that.

Love it or hate it, films like this simply don’t come along very often at all…

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Black Swan is out now on Blu-ray and DVD, and available from the Den Of Geek Store.