Darren Aronofsky's latest attempt Black Swan can be mirrored--quite literally, given the film's recurring visual motif--in the flaw of ballerina Nina Sayer's (Natalie Portman) technique: It goes through the motions but not the emotions of what it takes to make art. That this is not where the film's problems end is the more discouraging part of my personal viewing experience.
Despite the accolades the film is receiving, it's appropriate that few to none of them are calling it original, because it ain't--in fact, the film has received more comparisons to other films than I've read in recent memory, from a classic masterpieces The Red Shoes and Polanski's Repulsion to Paul Verhoeven's slightly less prestigious Showgirls. Even without the constant references in print reviews, I nearly found myself pointing out the film's thievery with the same gusto of a child reading a Where's Waldo? picture book. Although it is a truth that artists steal constantly, it's not where you take things from--it's where you take them to. So here is my back-tracking of Black Swan's origins and why Arononfsky desperately needed a map to know what to do with them.
Cat People (1942, Jacques Tourneur)
How it Compares to Black Swan: Both involve women who fear they will change into an animal (a leopard and a swan, respectfully) once they become sexualized.
Why The Original Is Better: Aronofsky can do many wonders with his visuals, from the flowing long-takes to the microphotography used to create the space oddity of The Fountain, but Tourneur knew that it's what you don't show that reveals the most. By keeping keeping the "transformation" and the animal in the dark for the entire film, the question of "Is she or isn't she?" becomes more pertinent and mysterious.
The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
How It Compares to Black Swan: Ambitious young ballerina gets the lead role in a new, visceral ballet and finds her life mirroring the dance she is to perform; is forced to choose between her two extreme loves/identities; camera movement of POV during a twirl....is that enough or shall I continue?
Why the Original Is Better: Wow, where do I begin....Powell and Pressburger were like the cinematic equivalant of Bernie Taupin and Elton John, the perfect harmony of writer and presenter which produced a long and artistically fruitful contribution to their medium. Although Powell is usually given more credit and fame of the two because he made the successful solo effort Peeping Tom (despite their shared directing/writing/producing credits, it is more or less accepted that Powell directed while Pressburger wrote), Pressburger was one of the finest screenwriters ever because of his sense of storytelling, aided by Powell's astounding visuals when at the director's chair. While both Black Swan and The Red Shoes contain stories within stories which mirror one another, The Red Shoes is far more glorious because it doesn't rely on exposition like Black Swan does (Vincent Cassel's only function is exposition and yelling at Nina to be more fuckable)--it SHOWS us the very tight connection between a character and a performer's life in a 15-minute dance scene which plays like a live-action sketch from Fantasia. While it would be useless to try to top this (one simply cannot), that Black Swan doesn't even try is perhaps most disappointing of all; the performance scenes don't have the artistic flourish that make the endless amount of pre-production worthwhile. No character in a Powell/Pressburger movie is a "function" for anything, and even though it does contain a somewhat black-and-white climax in which dancer Vicki is forced to choose between her career and her marriage (as visualized by pitting her between her mentor and her husband), it was a very real choice women had to make in the years after WWII, and that the ballet of The Red Shoes is based on a fairy tale is not made a secret by the filmmakers. If Vicki's personal choice seems old-fashioned by today's standards, at least it doesn't have a ring of misogyny which Black Swan does, in which a man manipulates a woman into being both the virgin and the whore and condemns her to madness because of it.
All About Eve (1950, Joseph Mankiewicz)
How it Compares to Black Swan: The friendship/rivalry of two women from the stage.
Why The Original Is Better: All About Eve's beauty is that it's far more than a movie, and Margo Channing is more than a movie: it was a reflection on Bette Davis's career as an actress, and a pinpoint of where she was as an actress at that moment in her life, struggling with insecurity about her age and her choices and her future. With this character, Mankiewicz proves why he's considered a rare male writer/director who "gets" women: he doesn't shy away from Margo's insecurities or flaws, which makes her personal triumphs all the more earned and sympathetic. The same can't be said for the women of the film, including the blink-and-you-miss it cameo by Winona Ryder as a disgraced dancer whose only mistake is growing older. Her limited amount of screentime is only matched by the depth of which the character is written, which is as deep as a paper cup; the only thing Ryder can do to make it memorable with it by overacting, which she does, and it's even kinda fun to watch.
Sunset Blvd. (1950, Billy Wilder)
How It Compares to Black Swan: The final delusion(?) of grandeur
Why The Original Is Better: While I don't think Wilder's film is a masterpiece everyone else makes it out to be--the film is only saved from being a cruel exercise in watching all its characters, especially the strung-out has-been Norma Desmond, fall towards a kind of hell, by a desperate but ultimately poignant and very good re-interpretation of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp by Norma--much like All About Eve, the casting of the leading lady couldn't be more perfect if they auditioned all the women in Hollywood. If Mankiewicz's casting of Davis and Wilder's of Gloria Swanson was a perfect eclipse of character and actress, the casting of Portman does little to enhance the character or her performance; Portman has always struck me as a female version of Leonardo DiCaprio: she's consistently good and sometimes even very very good, but she's far too mannered and controlled to ever surprise me, which includes her role of Nina. Despite the constant talk about Nina being in her late twenties and nearing the end of her prime, I never felt that the stakes were very high enough to make me want to root for her big performance which serves as the climax of the film. And when the final close-up comes, the irony of Wilder's twisted vision of fame's distant glow serves as a more cinematic end than Aronofsky's.
Repulsion (1965, Roman Polanski)
How It Compares to Black Swan: A woman slowly but surely grows mad by visions brought on by sexual frigidity.
Why The Original Is Better: Aronofsky appears to only have three colors in his palette: mirrors, bleeding fingernails and doppelgangers (including Nina's rival Lily, her mother and ultimately herself) are the continuing and constant motifs to demonstrate Nina's descent into madness. They're tiring and more than reminescent of Nicolas Cage's happy-go-lucky hack brother of Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, connecting the dots of someone's outline of what symbols tie the themes together (see link below for a more humorous rendering of this concept). Carole's visions of her descent are frightening precisely because they make little sense, becoming closer to the terrifying non-sequetor of real dreams. The moment when dozens of hands break through the walls is dazzlingly poetic beyond Aronofsky's wildest dreams.
So Aronofsky, the next time you mentally take notes while watching someone else's film for future reference, at least infuse your version with daring questions which made even your most preposterous The Fountain so fascinating and original.