Black Swan as Horror Film
Jewish boys across America met with disappointment when Natalie Portman confirmed that she was engaged to French-born ballet dancer Benjamin Millepied, who helped with the choreography on her recent film, Black Swan. I myself would have preferred to see her with someone more intellectual and more Jewish, like perhaps Black Swan director and fellow Harvard alum Darren Aronofsky, instead of the dancing sheygetz she chose. Still, we should not allow this recent turn of events to cloud our judgment. Black Swan is a terrific film. It is also flush with female Jewish leads–not just Portman (nee Hershlag) but also co-stars Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder (nee Horowitz) and Barbara Hershey (nee Herzstein).
Indeed, the acting was superb all around. Kunis and Hershey may well deserve Oscar nominations for best supporting actress (Ryder’s role is too small though she’s great too), and if Portman doesn’t win best actress I’ll be shocked. Is there even anyone else in contention?
The movie isn’t perfect: Aronofsky is hardly subtle in his use of imagery, really hitting you over the head with the film’s central metaphor. Still, it works, thanks to a solid story, visually stunning cinematography, and the aforementioned acting. And did the lesbian scene with Portman and Kunis hurt? No, no it didn’t.
The movie also interested me because it represents another example, (Silence of the Lambs being the other that comes to mind), of a horror movie whose distributors do not advertise it as a horror movie for fear of it seeming too unsophisticated. This isn’t my idea: I read this a few years ago, maybe in The New Yorker or somewhere else like that. The horror brand has become so associated with low-budget, low-brow b-movie schlock (which, admittedly, I love) that filmmakers and distributors don’t want to tarnish their products by donning the horror label. I didn’t realize the movie was supposed to be scary at all until I read this Vogue article on Portman, which noted: “Black Swan is a lurid but effective parable about growing up, a stylized horror tale full of mirrors and blood that owes large debts to Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.”
I’ve never seen Red Shoes or Repulsion, but I have seen Carrie (and read the novel by Stephen King) and I know that that is a horror movie. And though Rotten Tomatoes lists Black Swan‘s “genre” as “mystery & suspense” and “drama” it is also, quite clearly a horror movie, in fact, probably more than it is a drama or a mystery. It is gory and full of frightful imagery and pop-up scares. Rotten Tomatoes, like other critics, also calls it a “psychological thriller,” but what is that if not a sub-category of horror?
My point is that many horror movies are indeed schlocky, and often quite bad. These have their place. But when horror is good, it can be great, even brilliant, and we shouldn’t hesitate to label it appropriately.