As the house lights came back up, and I looked around at the audience and my date for the afternoon, I couldn’t help but overhear passersby commenting firmly on what they hated and what they loved about the film. No one seemed to be ambiguous, nor did they seem to have the same experience. This is an unusual quality for any film for certain.
Much like Aronofsky’s previous films, Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler… The Black Swan left me feeling mentally agile–as if I had just successfully completed a complex puzzle. Or did I? Listening to and reading others’ vastly diverse thoughts on the film, I think I might be alone in this reaction, which isn’t an unusual spot for me, frankly. It is unusual for this disconnect to be so universal, and so I felt compelled to explore this phenomenon further.
Here’s the thing, critics are crying out that the film was flat. Specifically, while most applaud Natalie Portman’s performance, they cringe at the abuse, neglect and sexist, violent portrayals of the characters victimizing Portman’s character throughout the film. Other critiques are more interested in the plot and character development, or seeming lack thereof, describing the flat, unrealistic stereotypes drawn for each character in the film.
My theory: often moviegoers sit down in a theatre with a certain expectation, and moviegoers familiar with Aronofsky have a very certain expectation–depth.
Aronofsky is known for his intricate characters and complex plot development. Audiences are drawn in to both love and despise the deeply flawed yet intimately familiar protagonist, and often the true antagonist is identified as an internal demon within the protagonist, often fueled by mental illness, substance abuse or some other psychological dysfunction. Yet, these characters are best known for their depth–portraying the best and worst in the human spirit with simultaneous acts of degradation and redemption.
This is a stark contrast in The Black Swan, as these characters were paper-thin and wholly predictable based on their assigned dysfunctions and nothing more. I do not believe this was an accident, an oversight, a lazy mistake on the part of the film’s creator. Just as all previous Aronofsky films have been threaded with an intricate web of intent, The Black Swan was no different. I am certain that the one-dimensional caricatures that appeared in the film were not in error–a mishap weakening the film. I believe that this story required it.
The protagonist, Nina, harbored every social and psychological problem commonly seen in young professionals in the classic arts: 1) Stage mom; 2) Eating disorder; 3) Dependant personality; 4) Self-mutilation; 5) Arrested emotional development; 6) Emotional and sexual victimization; and 7) A growing psychiatric disorder (possibly schizophrenia with psychotic episodes in this case). This is not to say that these problems are so common that they are the norm in young professionals in the high arts–they are certainly among the minority. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that a single professional would possess every one of these problems, and therein lies the complexity. How do you draw a series of charicature and make the audience believe them?
Nina, is far less a stereotype as other critics have suggested–she is indeed a caricature. Nina was not so much a person, rather she was a chasm–little more than a hole filled with packages of psychiatric and psychological disorders strongly influenced and exacerbated by juxtaposed environments of destructive social problems.
The other characters’ roles were only meant to perpetuate this dance of perfect dysfunction. A death-trap of intertwined problems, choreographed to end in perfect destruction. Depth of character was not the goal–the goal was illustrating the depth of dysfunction, drawing a picture of how this perfect storm will play-out, scored within the beautiful tale of Swan Lake.
Art is not only here to imitate, interpret or serve as an example for life and culture. Art is about inspired creation–taking what’s in the mind of the artist and his or her heart, spirit and imagination, allowing others the opportunity to experience a glimpse of this perspective.
The Black Swan was not intended to inspire or educate on reality–it is the artist’s view of a reality. Aronofsky has handed the audience his kaleidoscope, and he has let us see an image in his head. Enjoy it for what it is or not. It is an intentional puzzle of characters, situations, dialogue and actions for the audience to put together in a way that fits for them, individually. To critique it by attempting to determine if this is a healthy or realistic portrayal of ballet is flatly silly. The Black Swan is not meant to be a work of nonfiction or something to be lauded and emulated. It is film, and its responsibility ends there.