No one really knows what to think about director Darren Aronofsky's genre-bending flick Black Swan. And neither do the first batch of festival reviews of the picture. Critics are calling it everything from Cronenberg-eque to something "approaching grand guignol." Spoilers...
The reviews are in on Black Swan, the film featuring a rapidly unraveling Natalie Portman as a prima ballerina in NYC. Portman, who plays the character Nina, is awarded the lead role in Swan Lake in a prestigious NYC ballet company. But the dual role of virginal versus scandalous swan takes its toll on the tiny dancer, especially when Mila Kunis is ushered in as a possible replacement. As you can see from the trailer, this is where things take a turn for the crazy. Nina begins to change — physically, mentally, sexually — and it even gets to the point where she starts seeing doppelganger versions of herself passing by on the street. Are they delusions or supernatural? We don't know yet, and we're betting we never will. But for now, let's hear how the critics responded to Aronofsky's scandalous new film.
Time Magazine was one of the first publications to speak out against the many reviews calling for Portman's Oscar nomination. And while they praise her risk-taking and acting talents, they insist that the Oscar buzz for this film is merely based on its shock appeal.
Black Swan isn't an advance. It's a throwback, in three ways. First, to what Freud called "the return of the repressed" - that repressed desires created severe neuroses. Second, to the Method cult notion of empathizing with a character until you become it. (As Laurence Olivier legendarily told Dustin Hoffman when the younger star was agonizing over his motivation in the tooth-drilling sequence of Marathon Man: "Dear boy, why not just try acting?") Third, and most reductively, to the ancient commandments of the horror genre, which teach that a young woman is either a virgin, who's pure enough to fight the demon, or a whore, who somehow deserves to be killed (especially when she's just had sex). The idea of a healthy eroticism is alien to these films; they allow no middle ground. I'm pretty sure this is a guy's idea of a woman's sexuality. Black Swan had women in front of the camera, men as the director and writers and cinematographer.
IndieWire seemed to agree, claiming that some of the characters were more reminiscent of an older school horror caricature from Carrie, rather than a real life villain.
[Black Swan] Struggles to carve out a real-world parallel to the life-and-death struggle depicted in the dance story. It goes over the top in something approaching grand guignol fashion.
The Washington Post, however, praised Aronofsky for doing what he does best. Showing the gritty reality of often overlooked world.
As in "The Wrestler," Aronofsky does not spare viewers from the physical realities of the protagonist's world. Portman's "Nina" unwraps her feet after pushing herself through a series of pirouettes to find her big toe nail painfully split and bloodied. That is only part of her physical suffering, and the cause of which is mysterious.
Cinematical also praises Portman for her acting skills, and the director for his ambiguous approach to the film's genre.
The kicker is that since Aronofsky has avoided establishing the film as any particular genre, we never even know what KIND of awfulness we're expecting. It feels just as likely that a dancer will suffer a gruesome natural injury as it is that one will be attacked by her doppelganger... Portman might be the perfect collaborator for Aronofsky. She tends to come across as intelligent, delicate, and refined, but she's also capable of coarseness. His films can be graphic and harsh, yet beautiful in their way, filled with visual poetry. The actress and director are an especially good fit for Black Swan, which examines the dual nature of man, the good and evil we all have in us.
THR goes even farther and calls Aronofsky's shock value a guilty pleasure.
"Swan" is an instant guilty pleasure, a gorgeously shot, visually complex film whose badness is what's so good about it. You might howl at the sheer audacity of mixing mental illness with the body-fatiguing, mind-numbing rigors of ballet, but its lurid imagery and a hellcat competition between two rival dancers is pretty irresistible. Certain to divide audiences, "Swan" won't lack for controversy, but will any of this build an audience? Don't bet against it.
And finally Slashfilm answers the question we've all been pondering, so just how sexually explicit is this film going to get? The answer, very.
Black Swan is also the most erotic American film I've seen in years. Portman's character Nina is sexually repressed, and her director Thomas (played by Vincent Cassell) is trying to turn Nina's frigid dancing into something more seductive. Yes, there is masturbation, the much talked about sex scene between Portman and co-star Mila Kunis and a fair share of physical groping. The old lady to my right gasped at least a dozen times. She covered her eyes during the sex sequences, and groaned in disgust at the gore.
It's a collection of different opinions of praise and criticism. Seems like Black Swan might be one of those "you have to see it to believe it" films. And here are a few new images to tide you over until the national release, December 1st.