Thursday, April 28, 2011

Black Swan: Through the Looking-Glass

Black Swan
US, 2010
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a strange piece of cinema. Its heritage can be traced back to the long-lived trope of the artist sacrificing life in favor of art—previously dramatized via ballet in Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes—as well as myths like that of Narcissus and his fatal obsession with his own reflection. There's also a bit of the fairy tale here, but fairy tale in the original sense: dark, foreboding, and deadly, much like Swan Lake's subject matter. It's also an over-the-top melodrama, with all of the heightened emotional states and family issues that genre entails. But Black Swan is primarily a horror movie, one of the sort often called "psychological thrillers" by people who want to pretend that what they're watching is somehow "better" than a genre picture—as if there's anything wrong with genre! It's an intensely personal picture, one with the body horror (if not the gore) of Cronenberg, and the twisty mental manipulation of Polanski. That the film ties together all of these elements and makes them work is a testament to Aronofsky's skill and that of his collaborators.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a talented but repressed young ballet dancer. She lives in a state of perpetual adolescence with her dominating, smothering, passive-aggressive mother (Barbara Hershey), a failed former dancer who gave up ballet to have Nina. When the company's director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), casts the sweet, restrained Nina as the Swan Queen—in spite of his misgivings over her ability to also play the Queen's dark, sultry evil twin, the Black Swan—Nina's grasp on reality, tenuous to begin with, begins to splinter and crack.

As I alluded to earlier, Black Swan has a thing about mirrors and reflections. That's because this is a film about doubling and duality. Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin begin seeding the film with hints at Nina's dual nature very early on, and craft the story around this concept, even going so far as to double Swan Lake within the film's story. It's pretty Psych 101–level stuff, where Nina's suppressed passionate side latches onto free-spirited Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer in the company, and uses her as an an alter ego and an excuse to break out from Nina's staid front, but it works. As Nina's delusions become increasingly apparent, it becomes harder for us to separate what's "real" in the film from what's fake. Throughout, the film's many mirrors go from being tools used to perfect balletic movements to being glimpses into a sinister world where Nina's double works to supplant her.

Aronofsky builds unease into almost every frame of the picture, coming in for uncomfortable close-ups at strange angles, shaking through hand-held sequences, even quick-panning into and out of shots to surprise and disturb the audience. He doesn't use the rapid cutting style he employed in his earlier films (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) anywhere near as often, here, though he and his crew seamlessly integrate effects shots and a mix of shot types to heighten the film's delirious tone. Even the sound design skews over-the-top, featuring disturbingly magnified sounds of feet cracking, murmured voices, and feathers rustling around every corner. All of this is done in service of realizing Nina's damaged state-of-mind.

The film's entire cast, from principal roles through bit parts, does remarkably well through what must have been a grueling shoot. Due to the lingering controversy over how much dancing Natalie Portman actually did, it may seem inappropriate to applaud her too much. But I don't think it matters, in the end; Portman has done a fantastic job, even if she only performed five percent of her dance scenes. Her ability to switch from fragile to vicious, from being a "sweet girl" to looking like a tormented madwoman, is worthy of acclaim on its own merits. And although the others are stuck with slightly less meaty roles, instead fulfilling the "types" the film's niche specifies, they all play their roles well. This not just formula for formula's sake; the film's impact depends on this familiarity.

At its core, Black Swan is about the difficulties and sacrifices artists make to become who they are. Nina's mother couldn't remain a dancer after having Nina, and so she makes her daughter a surrogate for the life she gave up. The older dancer Beth (Winona Ryder) is left unprepared for the life she must lead now that her age and the art world's obsession with youth have taken away the one thing she knew how to do well. And as for Nina, she has submerged her own desires in the misguided pursuit of "perfection" for so long that, when they surface, they threaten to destroy her.

The subtext, not terribly well-hidden, is critical of a pervasive theme in our society: male sexuality, as personified by Thomas, is normalized, just another part of the world. But female sexuality is dangerous. It results in unwanted pregnancies, in violent delusions, in a loss of "perfection" for the women it ensnares. The film plays with and problematizes these ideas, showing us the costly toll they exact on one and all. In this light, Nina's White Swan/Black Swan split becomes yet one more example of the virgin/whore false dichotomy that sexism has caused many people—men and women—to internalize. As deliberately overblown as many of the film's elements may be, its approach to this feminist subtext is well-handled. By couching these themes in the generic baggage of melodrama, dance, and horror, Black Swan deftly blurs the boundaries between "low" pop culture and "high," agenda-bearing art. For me, personally, it succeeds on both levels, and left an impression that's been hard to shake.


  1. I watched it last night. Good movie and a good review as always.

    I remember thinking part way through the movie that Swan Lake is a really sexist story.

    I am surprised they were able to get ballet people to help on the movie at all. It does not make that world look very appealing.

    As for the "controversy" over how much Natalie Portman danced I just don't understand it. It is a freaking movie! Not real! Of course she didn't do all her dancing.

    I used to think that ballet was a terrible thing for someone to do for a living but I wonder if it is any worse that sports plaid at high level?

  2. @spurge

    Thanks! You bring up some interesting points.

    No, ballet doesn't look like a terribly appealing world after this film, but I guess the idea is that the pain/torment is all necessary to create a beautiful piece of art in the end.

    Besides, I think the dancers involved were likely A) Happy to have a paying job and B) Aware that they were in a horror flick/psychological thriller, and understood there'd be a certain amount of distortion, there.

    But yeah, I agree with your point about sports. Pro athletes also sacrifice their longterm physical—and often mental, in the case of the NFL—health for the allure of a few seasons in the spotlight and big money that won't last forever.

    Aronofsky's previous film The Wrestler showed that side of things pretty well. What skills can an athlete/entertainer, who sacrificed most other forms of experience and education to excel in sports, fall back on when they can no longer perform? Can they ever really break away, or do they all think they've got more left in the tank if someone would only give them a chance?

  3. I keep forgetting that he did The Wrestler.