Black Swan (2010)

Dir. Darren Aronofksy. Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis

There is no movie which I have a harder time distancing myself from than Black Swan, not because I love it so much or because I saw it when I was young, but because it had such a powerful effect on me when I saw it at nineteen. It was not like the two movies which were favorites for Best Picture. The King’s Speech is a triumph of focus group groupthink, appealing to our fetishistic and foolish interest in royalty, taking it as somehow groundbreaking that it’s only custom which makes us treat a king like a king. (The movie, of course, lacks the bravery to make us take the next step—why do we have a king anyway if it’s just a tired social rule?—but it’s that king of mealy-mouthed cowardice which makes Best Picture winners doomed for cable within five years.) The Social Network is a movie with flaws, but it also has a great energy running throughout it predicated on more than showy editing or neon colors. Its young actors were charismatic and vibrant, and something about the moodiness of Fincher’s direction made Sorkin’s effervescent dialogue feel desperate rather than gaudy.

But Black Swan, which has no line of dialogue to match the endless quotability of Justin Timberlake’s deranged screed about how cool a billion dollars is, or nothing quite as quirky and memorable as “my a-peoples,” fills the mind with images. Is that young woman on the subway dressed in black Nina Sayers’ (Portman) doppelganger? Is that her again walking past her on the sidewalk? Is she looking at her, dripping blood, while Nina takes a bath and touches herself? There’s something the matter with Nina, certainly, although one gets the sense that a vacation and a room of her own would relieve her of much of her stress. I’d read about these people before, who were deeply troubled because of their professions or their parents or their virginity. But I’d never seen Nina Sayers on screen the way I’d seen Quentin Compson in a novel, and the fact of her kicked me right in the teeth. No movie I’d ever come across had cared less about showing me what was actually happening.

Black Swan has a significant advantage over most movies in terms of music, obviously, since much of what Clint Mansell has to do is adapt Tchaikovsky in a more modernized fashion as opposed to coming up with his own score; this is not, to return to the above comparisons, Trent Reznor’s score for The Social Network. Yet Mansell does not shy away from the task of adapting Swan Lake. The finale of Swan Lake relies heavily on an oboe, the patron saint of musical waterfowl, to carry its melody. And it’s lovely. Much of the reason people return to the ballet over and over again is because Odette is lovely, and the lightness of the music here, though urgent, fits in seamlessly with the protagonist.

Mansell goes in a different direction with his work on the finale music, which begins from the point where Nina discovers that she’s stabbed herself and not Lily. The oboe carrying the immediately recognizable melody has been replaced with a saxophone, which hums more than sings. It’s a mood enhancer, not a place for the music to shine, and perhaps that’s right given the incredible shock that Nina’s been given. (Worth noting too is that the movie appears to cut out Siegfried’s suicide in favor of a single falling death for Odette: Thomas wasn’t kidding when he said he was reworking the ballet.) What is lovely has been sliced out of this movie long ago, and the best that Nina can hope for is “perfection,” the creation of something final and sublime which she wrenches out of her in much the same way that her little stomach wound breathes as she pulls the glass out.

The movie relies heavily on its strict color palette as well: black, white, any number of grays, chrome, rich browns for hardwood floors, pale pink for Nina and her accessories (stuffed animals, cake, etc.). A club scene uses red and green because raves. There are blue lights in a restaurant. Red is strictly for Nina’s eyes and for her blood; a rich orange at the end is for the sun over Swan Lake but never for anything else. Studies of duality, which are something of an Aronofsky trademark, find themselves reliant on those visual cues, and the discipline maintained throughout the movie makes this one come out further. Using ballet, which is an art combining brutal physical power with adroit grace, develops the idea. So does incorporating Swan Lake (“overdone, I know,” admits Cassel’s Thomas Leroy), with the twinned characters of Odette and Odile. Tempting as all of this is, it’s also simplistic, a little tired.

It’s not until Black Swan makes a casserole of foils out of its characters—Nina with Lily (Kunis), Beth (Winona Ryder), and Nina’s nameless mom (Barbara “Black Seagull” Hershey)—that the movie begins to stir the pot. Lily is set up explicitly by Thomas (who, though he inhabits both roles, is much more Rothbart than Siegfried) to be Nina’s outrageous alternate. Nina lives at home with mother; Lily comes from San Francisco without any discernible ties. Nina dances with her hair back tight and with precise footwork, and Lily’s hair is down constantly while she treads emotionally through her steps. Nina wears white and pink and has an inexplicable rash above her shoulder blade. Lily is always in black and has a giant back tattoo with wings outstretched. Beth, the prima ballerina Nina replaces, is another chess piece moved by Thomas; unfortunately for her, in her thirties and beyond her best days performing, she is a chess piece made to be sacrificed. I’ve written before that Ryder is inspired casting not just because she has an impressive tabloid history, but because she was Natalie Portman before Natalie Portman; put The Age of Innocence and Little Women eight years ahead, and May and Jo belong to Portman. Of Nina’s foils, Beth is the least seen and maybe the most talked about, a specter of the mortality that comes for all dancers, with raccoon eyes at a fundraiser for the ballet or stabbing herself in the face with a nail file in a wheelchair. (She also has some of Lily’s recklessness in her, a fact that appeals to Thomas.) Beth is where the movie’s horror elements, like jump scares and stabby self-mutilation, come to the fore. All the same, she has grace in her figure and success in her past; Ma Sayers got pregnant at thirty and chose the baby over her own ballet career, which was brief and inglorious. Since then she has lived through her daughter, a puppet she manipulates with a mixture of passive-aggression and infantilization, and seems to secretly resent for having become the more successful dancer. There is still a girlishness about her when she’s happy which feeds into the same for Nina. There seems to be much the same path available for Nina, who has no prospects short of snogging Thomas when she wants a part or when he’s trying to make a point, and whose meekness might transform into something more terrible if her mother’s bitter loneliness predicts anything.

Black Swan is not given its due as a very fine body horror movie, perhaps because the consequences of Nina’s various manglings are muted due to the fact that they probably never happened. But what to make of Nina pulling the skin from her finger inches long in a scene not designed for the squeamish? How about the cracking sound that her mother’s fingers make when they are slammed in the door? Who can forget the way her knees bend backwards to give her a more fowlish posture? I’m fond of the way she pulls apart her two smallest toes on her right foot once they’ve begun to stick together and takes a deep breath: without saying a word, she’s said that she’s fixed this problem. Then she looks at her left foot, which of course is irreversibly webbed and disgusting to the eye. It’s funny like a mirage in the desert is funny or, maybe, like puberty is funny. Black Swan is, maybe to the point of pure exploitation, concerned with the late, late pubescence of its protagonist. Part of this self-discovery is the “lezzy wet dream” that she may have fantasized about that night where she left her mother’s apartment in a huff to join Lily, but which is depicted without a blush by the actors and director. (I don’t pretend that Black Swan is the world’s most progressive movie. Without impugning Aronofsky’s honor too much, one wonders if anyone but a straight male director would have worked in that much lesbian sex or, alternately, a vague but nasty workplace romance with a boss about fifteen years her senior.) Some of it is experimentation with drugs and talking back to mom; there’s the bulimia which no one ever speaks about but which is certainly a significant aspect of Nina’s life. Most subtly, I think, is how putting on makeup speaks a change in Nina in much the same way that a girl trying out flavored lip gloss before a middle school dance has changed. Nina steals Beth’s lipstick out of her dressing room and wears it in an attempt to change Thomas’ mind about the casting of Swan Lake. Also important is the makeup for the Swan Queen and Black Swan alike, the latter of which is on the road to becoming an iconic design. In the first, Nina is wide-eyed and fearful and apologetic and anxious, in tears often as not. She is, in Thomas’ hypermasculine parlance, “weak.” In the second, she is decisive on stage and slinks, almost purring backstage, kissing Thomas heavily before she goes out to perform again simply because she can. The movie leaves open-ended whether or not Nina will get to grow up, ending as it does with a white light. All the same I’ve never believed that she dies at the end, even if she tells Thomas that she was “perfect” in that performance; even if she can play perfect for a night, she is in all other aspects of her life too hamfisted to be perfect in death. She did just pretend to die in front a thousand people…and landed on a mattress instead of splattering her guts.

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