Bad Movies We Love: Black Swan

I don't love Black Swan. I barely even enjoy it! I barely even get what there is to enjoy. It boasts the hammiest dialogue of the past Oscar season? It's the most transparent psychodrama in film history? It can't establish a tone, a fully believable character, or consistency because it resorts to camp at every turn? I just don't know. But if Friends With Benefits star Mila Kunis ever starred in a Bad Movie We Love, it's this. (Sorry, Krippendorf's Tribe -- you're just bad.) There's an argument for its inclusion in our weekly feature, and reservations aside, I'm picking out five utterly bizarre instances in Black Swan that justify that inclusion. I will now recite them diplomatically!

Since Black Swan just happened six months ago, I'll tax you with only a speedy plot recall: Natalie Portman is definitely a ballerina named Nina, and she wins the dual role of the white and black swans ("the swan queen") in a rejiggered version of Swan Lake. Her overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) is overprotective. Her ballet instructor (Vincent Cassel) is a perv. She finds a rival in the dark new girl Lily (Kunis), who wears black swan makeup as a life choice. Through not-so-quiet directorial choices, we gather that the "perfection" required for the dual role is taking a toll on Nina. Will it be the death of her? Let's hope there's some horrible expository dialogue to explain her plight.

Of course, the movie went on to score a number of Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), and Portman won Best Actress. Before we launch into our quintet of lovably awful quirks, I pose a critical thinking question: How is Portman's Oscar win even justifiable? What is the arguable argument? Portman's certainly fine as Nina, playing the beleaguered pixy with grace and asthmatic terror at the right moments -- but this isn't close to an Oscar-worthy character. Did Janet Leigh deserve an Oscar for Psycho? Tippi Hedren for Marnie? We're dealing with a Hitchcockian protagonist whose arc is merely an extension of stylish direction. A sharp profile made sinister with light cues and post-production finessing. And against Jennifer Lawrence, Annette Bening and Nicole Kidman, who turned in stunning performances as fully conceived, fully lit homo sapiens in Winter's Bone, The Kids are All Right, and Rabbit Hole, Portman's win is too much to handle, still.

But enough of that vitriol. I can play the white swan too. Onto lovable badness:

5. Winona Ryder stabs herself in the face, presumably after watching Mr. Deeds


Winona Ryder's role in Black Swan is also an archetype, but at least it's a broad, fun whodunit mold: the aging prima ballerina who forfeits her marquee stardom to ingenue Nina. As Beth MacIntyre, Ryder gets to be drunk, self-harming, and even dash into traffic like an ambitious ferret after a traumatizing gala event. She truly comes alive (in an undead way) thereafter, strung up in the hospital with bandages and braces. When a guilt-overcome Nina goes to visit her, a hallucinatory vision floods the screen and suddenly the vibrant Age of Innocence star is, for some reason, plunging a knife into her own face repeatedly. Is it jarring? Sure. Is it... Winona Ryder stabbing her own face? Yes, more importantly. I have nothing else to add to that gift.

4. Vincent Cassel would again like to know if Nina can play the black swan.

First of all, allow Cassel, who plays Nina's purring, consummately cliche coach Thomas Leroy, to tie up the drama of this movie using a bit of metaphorical, teacher-y dialogue early in the film. "We all know the story [of Swan Lake] -- a virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan," he begins. "She desires freedom, but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince, but before he can declare his love, her lustful twin, the black swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the white swan leaps off a cliff and in killing herself, finds freedom." Did you like that subtle parallelism? Children? Do you also like Mr. Feeny's head-of-classroom monologues on Boy Meets World, because that's the level of witty scripting we're dealing with here. If a downtrodden Rider Strong turned out to be the black swan, I'd have cheered.

But I confess, I kind of love the lame exposition. It is unashamed! This is a shameless movie. And when it runs out of expository stuff, it just starts repeating itself. On no less than three occasions -- between rounds of yelling at Nina to "attack it" -- does Thomas blurt some variation of, "Very good, Nina. But your performance as the black swan is not dark, dangerous, and Mila Kunis-y enough. Boo!" Like most good Bad Movies We Love, Black Swan prefers you don't think for yourself -- It will just tell you the subtext in block-quote form, like a friend reading Cliff's Notes at you before a sixth-period quiz.

3. It is possible that our protagonist is -- hear me out -- crazy.


The point of a psychodrama (Rosemary's Baby is the example that keeps springing to mind) is that we have only a hazy idea of what's up with the characters. We can make assumptions, but we rarely know what's real or imagined, projected or fabricated. Black Swan even sweeps away that ambiguity, establishing Nina as a hyperventilating paper doll within the first few scenes -- nay, moments. Bloggers Tom and Lorenzo said it best (and most dismissively): "She starts off at about an 8 on the crazy scale (of 1 to 10), stays there through the entire movie, and then in the final act jumps to ten. There is no progression to her madness nor is there really any question that she's crazy. It's 'watch a crazy girl get even crazier.' That's pretty much the plot." Indeed, the mystique of Nina's condition is really in its stagnancy. She's insane for awhile, and then insane later too. In one early scene, she sees the eyes on a painting move. Which is nice and Hanna-Barbara-y. Soon, as you likely remember, she jams her broken toes and bleeding fingers into the camera, pulls feathery pricks from her own skin during some of the super swanny delusions, and finds herself amid completely self-invented sexual scenarios. What are we supposed to think at this point? "I hope she's OK!" "She's going to be fine." "Maybe she'll fly soon." Black Swan's craycray level is violent in its obviousness, and steadfast in its obliviousness. We see what's up, Darren. She has a cygnus! Take her to a squawkspital.

2. There seems to be a black-and-white motif going on here!

Unless you are colorblind in some legendary way, you notice in Black Swan that a black-vs.-white dichotomy looms with the sophistication of, say, a film noir-referencing episode of Muppet Babies. Nina, who is only great as the white swan, wears a feathered white scarf early in the film. Lily, who is a fine black swan, wears black. Unsatisfied coach monster wears a white shirt with a black scarf, since he preys on both ladies. The colors stand at odds like Goofus and Gallant, illustrating precisely the elements (well, element) of conflict. I reveled in the illusion once I decided to believe Black Swan was always about to morph into a Bjork video, with swan dresses jolting to the fore at a moment's notice. Natalie is "It's Oh So Quiet" Bjork, Mila is an ursine "Hunter" Bjork, and together, they comprise the fulgent "Big Time Sensuality" Bjork. Michel Gondry is dissolving into tears!

1. Barbara Hershey and her dramatic interpretation of "Macarthur Park"


And now, for Black Swan's truest moment of campy gusto: Barbara Hershey, who emits Tawny Kitaen-meets-Dianne Wiest realness in this movie, is an incomprehensible zealot as Nina's mother. When Nina lands the starmaking part, her mother beams with glee and offers her a cake. A cake. "Our favorite!" she declares. "White with strawberry frosting!" Nina, who is a ballet star who does not eat cake, declines a large piece. "FINE," Mrs. Scary Mom booms, "THEN IT'S GARBAGE," before stomping off to discard the thing. It's just a 10-second segment -- and later Hershey scintillates more when she appears in Nina's room during one of her masturbatory delusions -- but in this instant, she combined wild wailing and cake drama, making for one hell of a tribute to Donna Summer's "Macarthur Park." And that, my dears, is the loveliest bad thing on the planet. Here it is, the original Black Swan:


  • sosgemini says:

    Yes, this movie really was this terrible. LOL

  • Trace says:

    I'm glad someone finally gave this turkey the ripping it deserved. And what's sad is that it's actually better than The Fountain...

  • Capote99 says:

    Nicely done (as usual), Louis.

  • TN says:

    Natalie Portman won that oscar because people who love her can't/won't shut up about how great she is. she was ubiquitous in 2010. She was it's Halle Berry. I think she's phony. Always have.

  • HS says:

    Ok screw everyone, Black Swan was very good.

  • orlando says:

    As you said it, Black Swan was shamelessly over the top and Aronofsky wasn't afraid to be campy. In that regard, Hershey was superb and completely in for the style of the direction. I think it's "so bad it's awesome", sort of like what Showgirls could have been with this caliber of performances.

  • Tenetria says:

    I love this movie, but I'm so glad you pointed out the campy fondue-fest that is Vincent Cassel's dialogue/performance. It was supposed to be funny, right? It HAS to be.

  • Mike the Movie Tyke says:

    Thank you. BS (see what I did there?) is an overblown, silly film, and the farther we get away from it the more ridiculous it will seem. And while Ms. Portman is not a bad actress, this was no Oscar-worthy performance. Also, if you're going to listen to McArthur Park, go with the Richard Harris version! (Overblown and silly in a good way.)

  • Elijah says:

    You guys do realize that this entire film reflects the story of a ballet production? If the movie wasn't awesomely over-the-top then it wouldn't be as effective and wouldn't do the stage production justice. Can you imagine a subdued interpretation of Black Swan? Where's the fun in that? Ballet is camp, hence the movie needed that near camp value. You can't take this movie at face value. I'm tired of this trashy site constantly b-tching about this brilliantly directed and awesomely entertaining movie.

  • Frank says:

    I had to create an account just to say that "nice and Hanna-Barbara[sic]-y" is the funniest f-ing thing I've read in a long time.

  • jake says:

    Sorry, Elijah, but we will certainly not wait for any more comments from you here. Thank goodness someone will call this film what it is--annoying. Watching the terrible dancing, terrible cinematography and terrible performances was one of the most painful things I've ever had to sit through (and yes, I've seen The Fountain). Aronofsky is hit or miss. Pi, The Wrestler and Requiem are all pretty great. Fountain and Black Swan were intolerably bad. None of his films are brilliant. PT Anderson and Errol Morris have him beat with their worst films.

  • KevyB says:

    Excellent points, as this was easily my least favorite of all ten Oscar noms and I wasn't exactly over-excited for most of them in the first place. Yeah, it wasn't great but at least I didn't throw things at the screen and stomp out in disgust before it was over. That's why I'm basically fine with Natalie Portman winning her Oscar. That movie would have been simply unwatchable without her performance. Can you imagine if she had done her form of crazy at the same level as Barbara Hershey (who I thought was awful) throughout? I'd have stabbed MYSELF in the face!

  • Ben says:

    The movie is SUPPOSED to be campy. You guys are missing the point. Black Swan is essentially an exploitation film, albeit a very well directed and acted one. It's supposed to be over the top, it's supposed to be silly. I love this movie. And just because motifs are obvious doesn't take away from what they add to the movie. Get over yourself.

  • A.Jaye says:

    Twas the lemming effect. People went in loving the film because they wanted to be part of the opinion-elite. As for the Oscars - the credibility of that farce died at Raging Bull.

  • Bart says:

    When are we getting a Bad Movie We Love for SHOWGIRLS? I seriously must have missed it. You're just teasing us at this point!

  • Trace says:

    That's so meta!

  • M says:

    You got one of Barbara's quotes wrong. You said (about the cake): "White with strawberry frosting." It SHOULD have been: "Vanilla with strawberry filling." If you're going to quote something, make sure you get it right first.

  • SingingDetective says:

    Some fitting observations can't hide the fact that this column should be called "Good movies that we hate because everybody else loves them"

  • kevin says:

    I thought I was the only one who did not like this movie. Thought I was a philistine. (It seemed to be on everyone's best movie list.) Okay, I KNOW I'm a philistine, but I don't feel so defensive in regards to this movie

  • MSK2232 says:

    It's a good idea, but if the movie didn't have so much ballet segments and had more lesbian action, regular action ("thrilling" scenes, "horror" scenes, conflicts, figths..) or any kinds of dramatic/scary/confusing/misterious twists in the storyline i would like it much more...
    Like I said, It's a good idea realized through a long, but a very boring movie.

  • Mrs. Virtel says:

    How sad would it to be to be Louis Virtel? Even if you were being paid, you'd still wake up and have to have this guy's face, body, brain.

  • Tomas says:

    maybe you should unsubscribe from that notification emails, it will help you.

  • Valid things here, would love to find out more about this kind of.