Film Review – Black Swan

More of That Bite

Coming away from this film, the first thought I had was, ‘camp nonsense.’ But the more I thought about it, and the more the film stayed with me, so it is that Black Swan is practically the opposite of camp. It’s a word that’s been bandied about much about Black Swan, so let’s nail why this is wrong right now. Camp is essentially humour with all the funny parts taken out. (Similarly, kitsch is something with all the good taste taken out). Black Swan is not at all funny but, crucially, it was never meant to be. Black Swan is a pretty bleak and nasty film.

Natalie Portman for once gets a role that plays to her somewhat limited talents. That vacant stare, that lack of range, that skinnier than a latte body. These are all perfect for her role as a sexually and intellectually repressed ballerina who wishes to become the lead in her New York production company. However, she’s not exactly super ambitious about it, thinking it merely a fantasy. “I had the craziest dream last night. I was dancing the white swan,” are her first words, referencing the most well-known of ballet roles.

However, her mother, played by Barbara Hershey and her unassailable tight lips, does her ambition for her. “I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did”. When you realise that this ‘mistake’ was getting pregnant, you’ll understand how much fuck-uppage there is in her twee but screwed up home life. This is before the real source of her upcoming grief arrives in the form of Vincent Casell, playing the artistic director of the company; the sort of role no American actor would touch. He fulfills all her, or at least her mother’s, ambitions by granting her the lead in the next production of Swan Lake. This she does by biting him in order to ward off some advances he insists are purely artistic. “Get ready to give me more of that bite”. Much like Twilight fans, he gets off on chaste nibbling.

To ensure the smooth progress of her new position, Cassell quietly disposes of the current prima ballerina, a perfectly cast Winona Ryder – all damaged wide eyes. Portman is  hardly delighted by the news. “It’s sad really, she’s such a beautiful dancer.” Whilst elderly female presenters on the BBC might go to the courts, Ryder reacts somewhat differently: she throws herself under a taxi. Cassell is full of admiration: “Some dark impulse. I guess that’s what makes her so thrilling to watch. Perfect at times but so damn destructive.”

The film sets out the story of Swan Lake in pointed detail. A girl trapped in the body of a swan needs true love to break the spell, but she’s tricked by her evil black twin and ends up killing herself. Ryder’s played her part, now it’s Portman’s turn. And it doesn’t help that she’s hallucinating and self-harming. This decent into her unhinged worldview is uncomfortably presented by director Darren Aronofsky with a camera that is almost constantly focused on her. The main view of the film seems to be two feet behind Portman’s head as she wanders around New York, occasionally catching glimpses of things out of the corner of her eye that she is more than likely imagining.

Black Swan is a breathtakingly dark film. A lot of horror films wish they had some of the deeply unsettling imagery and atmosphere that’s on display here. Aronofsky delights in undercutting our perceptions at every turn. Is Portman as innocent as she seems? How far is she willing to go to satisfy Cassell and Hershey’s demands on her? How black can her black swan really be? Black Swan is a lot of things. Camp is not one of them.


About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at) or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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