So begins a months-long stretch of Lindsay being alternately excited and curmudgeonly about the Oscars. Stay tuned.
“I am going to see Black Swan,” I told my mom over the phone a few days ago.
“Oh no,” she said. “Isn’t that supposed to be awful? I heard somewhere that it was Natalie Portman’s Norbit.”
“No way,” I said. “You probably got it backwards. Remember when Eddie Murphy was nominated for the Oscar for Dreamgirls, and everyone thought he lost because Norbit came out around the time of Oscar voting? Everyone says Natalie Portman’s totally going to get nominated for Black Swan. You probably heard someone say that that shitty-looking new movie she’s in with Ashton Kutcher could be her Norbit.”
Having now seen Black Swan, I have to say that, as per usual, my mom was right. Because I think that Eddie Murphy in fat suit drag amounted to a more nuanced female character than any I saw in Darren Aronofsky’s new film.
I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum, but here’s a brief sketch of the plot: Portman plays Nina Sayers, a perfectionist ballerina who’s all technique but no soul. The predictably lecherous director of her company (played with exquisite Frechness by Vincent Cassel) casts her as The Swan Queen in an upcoming production of Swan Lake. The role requires her to embody the dual personas of The White Swan and The Black Swan (virgin/whore alert, ladies), and much of the film centers around her stilted attempts to get in touch with her “dark side.” The neurotic (my anti-spoilers pledge is killing me here, but suffice to say: you have no idea how neurotic) Nina is haunted by the often phantom-like (shout-out to cinematographer Matthew Libatique) presence of the women who surround her: her retired dancer/creepily overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey); her ballet idol, an aging dancer who’s forced into early retirement (Winona Ryder); and, most importantly, a rival dancer (Mila Kunis) who’s the personification of The Black Swan — effortless, sensual, vivacious and everything else that Nina is not.
Without revealing too much, I’ll tell you something any easily nauseated viewer who’s just looking for Center Stage II should be privy to anyhow: shortly after its first act, Black Swan reveals itself to be body horror of a near-Cronenbergian degree. Which, on a theoretical level that’s in full disclosure of the fact that I will never fully recover from that initial “finger scene” (spoiler: oh just you wait), I loved. There’s something delightfully irreverent and even sneaky about the fact that body horror, a genre that’s long been dismissed as automatic b-movie territory, has smuggled its way into a usually stodgy Oscar race; for although the Best Picture nominees will again be increased to ten this year, that probably doesn’t mean there will be room for The Human Centipede. Plus, in a genre that’s more often than not interested in degenerating the male body while retaining the female body as a locus of visual pleasure, there’s something subversive about the decision to feature — and mutilate — a female protagonist in a film like this. Through cringe-inducing close-ups of her wounds (spoiler: like, I was sweating thought the last hour of this film, and it was pretty cold in the theater), Aronofsky complicates the audience’s response to Portman’s otherwise delicate, swan-like beauty.
But, unfortunately, the extremes of Black Swan‘s imagery are just window dressing on a handful of stale ideas about artistic pursuit, sex and, above all things, women. The female characters in the film are all the embodiments of the stupidest and most offensive cliches about women and female hysteria. Hershey’s character is the classic embittered mother, secretly resentful of her daughter for her youth, beauty and the fact that Hershey had to abandon her dancing career when she got pregnant (See? Women can’t have it all, and man does their bitterness about that drive them nutso!) Ryder’s character is the pathetic, washed-up performer who’s only able to define her value based upon her youth, beauty and others’ desire to look at her (she’s presented not even as someone who enjoys dancing, but who enjoys the feel of eyes fixated unblinkingly upon her). And then there’s the trusty ol’ virgin-or-whore dichotomy ever-present in Portman and Kunis’s characters, and how both options are presented with almost equal distain. Since the plot’s loosely based on Swan Lake, the stereotypes essentially derive from that story, though that doesn’t mean Black Swan couldn’t have done something more complex with its female characters’ motivations. In a laudatory review, Manohla Dargis acknowledges Aronofsky’s “predilection for cliches” in all the characters (including, rightfully, Cassel’s Thomas) and then says, “But oh, what Mr. Aronofsky does with those cliches, which he embraces, exploits and, by a squeak, finally transcends.” I take the opposite view: I think the cliches (especially those having to do with femininity) at its core are what bog down this otherwise thrillingly bizarre film.
Dana Stevens at Slate writes, “Nina is just a collection of neurotic behaviors, not a character…We never understand what’s at stake for her as an artist, other than sheer achievement for achievement’s sake. With this movie’s curious inattention to the question of why performing matters to its heroine, it could just as easily be a movie about a girl’s brutal struggle to become Baskin Robbins’ employee of the month.” And ultimately, that’s my complaint with Nina too. Defenders of the film might argue that Aronofsky’s portrayal of Nina’s empty motivation is a commentary about the nihilism of perfection, but I just see it as lazy characterization. Nina, like all the female characters in Black Swan, is animated not by well-written interior forces but by a vague, feminized hysteria. Portman does a good enough job with the material she’s given, and she’s certainly got the swan arms down to a T. But Nina is just another mock-transgressive female role whose physical demands seek to distract us from the fact that it clings to blunt and outmoded ideas about femininity. I can only hope that the role that earns somebody a Best Actress statue a few months from now is less prone to stereotypes and more emotionally complex than this.