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An Ambiguous Black Swan



(WARNING: Spoilers follow. I mean it.) Darren Aronofsky is one of our most gifted directors; his 2000 Requiem for a Dream was a film of great beauty. But Black Swan is a very uneasy mix of naturalistic drama and magic realism, one that ends up creating what I believe to be unnecessary, and unintentional, moral ambiguities. Natalie Portman plays a ballerina struggling to hold on to the starring role in Swan Lake, and descending into madness as she does so. This madness is displayed in the movie by too many tricks that belong in a typical Freddy or Jason cute-girl-chased-by-killer movie: If there’s a tight close-up on Natalie, there’s a pretty good chance something scary will jump out the minute she turns her head. About 40 minutes into the movie, she is shown masturbating, and you simply know the director won’t let her have an orgasm like a normal person. (I was actually rather relieved that the “surprise” in that scene was less schlocky than I expected. I was thinking that her mom would walk in and be horrified; instead, Portman’s character sees her mom asleep in the corner of the room. Still a cliché, still an infliction of sadistic punishment on our heroine, but not as bad as it could have been.)

To the extent that the perils of Portman are meant to be metaphorical — artistic creation depends on the mortification and transcendence of self, or some such — they are understandable and defensible. But, as I mentioned above, much of the film is presented in naturalistic style, so there is a moral dimension that’s too realistic to be ignored. The ballerina’s director is portrayed as a sleazy, exploitative sexual harasser, but at film’s end we are meant to celebrate the sacrifices she has made to please him. He is shown as sincerely concerned about the (real? metaphorical?) death of his star, as if the audience is supposed to take seriously the notion that his behavior is an excusable form of tough love to cultivate the ballerina’s potential for artistic passion. If he’s a metaphor, that’s okay; but he’s played as real, and a real person who behaves as he does is a creep.

Thus my uneasiness: This film could have been more feminist — that is to say, in my own understanding of the word feminist, it could have been more respectful of the dignity of the human female — but missed the opportunity. Still, let no one take away from the achievement of Natalie Portman. I haven’t seen much of her work, but in this movie she’s terrific, and makes the story compulsively watchable throughout. (Barbara Hershey — amazing to think she’s now old enough to be believable in aging-mom roles – is also very good, as the overprotective stage mother.)