It is definitely not a foolproof strategy, but the way I tend to judge films is to compare them to their respective previews. In other words, after I have finished a movie, I often think about whether it meets my expectations based on the preview, exceeds them or falls short of them. From this strategy stems my disappointment with one Oscar-nominated film with which everyone else around me seems to be anything but disappointed: Black Swan (Sidenote: As I am writing this column, the Oscars have not occurred yet).
When I saw the preview for Black Swan (and I saw it a lot — probably the only recent film that has been as shamelessly advertised on television is The Roommate), I wrote it off as another psychological thriller that would fall somewhere below A Beautiful Mind and somewhere above The Butterfly Effect, though maybe a touch closer to A Beautiful Mind only due to the possibilities brought to the table by two promising actresses, Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. But then Black Swan was all anyone was talking about, and Portman became not just a promising actress, but a part of Hollywood Royalty. My expectations obviously increased.
But even two good performances (and Portman and Kunis do give two great performances) don’t make a particularly original film. Interesting? Yes. Visually arresting? Definitely. But let me demonstrate my disappointment with the film by relaying the story my sister tells of when she saw Black Swan with my mom. At the point in the film when Portman’s character, Nina, looks at her feet and sees them beginning to web together, my sister said that in the dark and quiet movie theater, my mom leaned over to her and whispered, “That’s because she thinks she’s turning into a swan.”
My sister’s mocking of this comment is reminiscent, I believe, of my overall feelings at the end of the film: I thought that half the point is that the viewer isn’t supposed to know what’s real and what’s not. That the protagonist believes she is turning into a swan … well, it just pretty much gives it away that Nina isn’t quite there and doesn’t leave much for the viewer to ponder.
But, you may say, the relationship between Nina and Mila Kunis’s character, Lily, is still a mystery. I would agree — we don’t know if Lily purposefully distracts Nina with drugs and sex to steal her part or if this is a figment of Nina’s imagination. But given the cutthroat environment that the ballet company seems to foster, I would have to agree with Nina’s teacher’s response to Nina’s plea that Lily wants her part, which was something to the effect of that every ballerina wants her part. Whether or not Lily is more ruthless than the other dancers or equally ruthless just wasn’t enough of a mystery for me.
The ending scene, in which we don’t know if Nina literally kills herself or if she only kills the white swan, was a well-done and interestingly shot climax, but by this point, I found myself simply uncaring as to Nina’s fate. Though Portman portrays the character flawlessly, Nina is just not a character who I particularly cared about. She is, for lack of a better word, annoying. Though her circumstances were surely unfortunate, for some reason I just had trouble mustering up any kind of significant empathy for her.
To me, Black Swan is a well-done depiction of a progression of freaky events that lead to a young girl’s destruction, but not a thriller in the sense that I was thrilled by not knowing what was real or made up in Nina’s head. This criticism is not to say that I completely disliked the movie. It’s just that, despite the hype, it didn’t much surpass it’s paranoia-toting commercial: “She’s after me … Nobody’s after you … Please believe me …” I pretty much got what I needed from this trailer.
So why were people so captivated by this film? My only proposition is simply that maybe people like knowing. Maybe Black Swan is a different type of psychological “thriller,” one in which the protagonist is clearly sick from beginning to end and the only task left is to figure out what smaller details of her life are real or imagined. There is something to be said for this type of subtle thriller, and maybe its subtlety was its draw.
Black Swan also presents the idea that someone can be sick without a diagnosis, have a mind of questionable sanity without the label of an alternate dreamworld. In Black Swan, Nina seems to be just a product of her environment — the terrible demands of ballet and an overly doting mother. The viewer I saw Black Swan with noted that at any point, Nina could just wake up in a mental hospital. But this cliché was avoided, and there is something to be said for that.
I just think that for me, at least, if I’m not at the edge of my seat endlessly guessing and wondering and if I don’t actually care about the protagonist, I’d rather see something that will make me love life, not despise it. And no, I’m not talking about Toy Story 3. I’m talking about films like The Fighter and The King’s Speech, both based on real-life stories and both ending in ways that left me optimistic and inspired. Not to mention that both had much more to offer than their previews.