(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)
The final 15 minutes or so of Black Swan are so intense and exhilarating that, after I watched them, I ended up having an asthma attack. The movie literally left me breathless.
I saw this movie last Saturday at the Plano Angelika and I’ve been trying to figure out just how exactly to put into words my feelings about this movie. Why is it so much easier to talk about movies we hate than the movies we love? Perhaps it’s because we all know what a bad movie looks like but a great movie is something unique and beautiful. I fear that any review I write it going to cheapen this experience.
However, I’m going to try. And if my words can’t convince you then just see the movie yourself. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. As with all great works of art, there is no middle ground. Unfortunately, I don’t see any way for me to talk about this film without talking about a few key plot points that could be considered spoilers. So, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, read on with caution.
This year, there’s been two types of filmgoers. There’s been those who have spent 2010 waiting for The Social Network and then there are people like me who have been waiting for Black Swan. There’s a lot of reasons why I had been so looking forward to seeing this movie. First off, it’s directed by Darren Aronofsky, one of my favorite directors. Requiem for a Dream is a personal favorite of mine and I thought The Wrestler was one of the best films of 2008. Secondly, the movie stars Natalie Portman, a great actress who rarely ever seems to get parts worthy of her talent.
However, the main reason was a personal one. Black Swan takes place in the world of ballet and, for several years, ballet was literally my life. My family used to move around a lot but whether we were living in Ardmore, Oklahoma or Carlsbad, New Mexico or Dallas, Texas, ballet always remained my constant. Every town we ended up in, my mom tracked down the closest dance studio and enrolled me. I’ve loved all types of dance (and still do) but ballet is what truly captured my heart. It provided structure for my otherwise chaotic life. Ballet was something that I knew not everyone could do and when I danced, I felt special. I felt like I was something more than just an asthmatic girl with a big nose and a country accent. I felt beautiful and strong and special. When I danced, I felt alive.
As much as I dreamed of being a prima ballerina, I always knew that I wasn’t really that good at it. I’ve always danced with more enthusiasm than technique and, if forced to choose between perfect execution and just having fun, I almost always chose to have fun. My body also conspired me against me as I’ve been a D-cup since I was 14 and while boobs don’t necessarily make ballet impossible, they don’t exactly help. Of course, my main problem was that I was (and still am) a klutz. When I was 17 years old, I tripped, fell down a flight of stairs, and broke my ankle in two places. And so ended my ballet career.
To a certain extent, falling down those stairs is the best thing that ever happened to me because it forced me to explore a life outside of the idealized fantasy of ballet. It forced me to consider ambitions that don’t necessarily have to end the minute one turns 30. It allowed me to realize how much I love to write and how much I love to watch movies. Still, I do miss ballet. While I still love to dance, it’s just doesn’t feel the same. I still have fun but it no longer makes me feel special.
I guess I was hoping that Black Swan would remind me of that feeling that I had lost. And it did.
But enough about me. Let’s talk about Black Swan.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, a veteran ballerina who, despite being young enough to still live with her mother (and, it’s hinted, to still be a virgin), is also approaching the age when she’ll be considered too old to ever be a prima ballerina. She is a member of a struggling New York dance company that is run by Thomas (Vincent Cassel, turning up the sleaze level to 11). Thomas has decided that the company’s next show will be Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and that it’s time to replace the company’s prima ballerina, Beth (played by Winona Ryder), with a younger dancer. Nina begs for the chance to be Beth’s replacement but Thomas rejects her, claiming that her dancing is technically perfect but has no passion. He then attempts to kiss her which leads to Beth biting his lip and, apparently, convincing him that she has passion after all. Thomas soon announces that Nina will dance the lead in Swan Lake.
Unfortunately, even before winning the role, Nina is obviously unstable. Whether she’s obsessively stretching in her hideously pink bedroom, forcing herself to vomit up the contents of her stomach, or seeing shadows down every corridor, Nina’s every action and thought seems to be obsessed with finding the idealized perfection that ballet demands and life seldom affords. No matter how much she and her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey) cut her nails, she still wakes up with mysterious scratch marks across her back. Even worse, as she gets deeper and deeper into the role, she finds herself strangely drawn to and fearful of Lilly (Mila Kunis), a younger, free-spirited dancer who may, or may not, have her eye on taking Nina’s place.
Along with being an homage to such classic films as Repulsion, Suspiria, and All About Eve, Black Swan is also a modern-day reinterpretation of Swan Lake. Swan Lake tells the story of Odette, a princess who has been cursed by an evil sorcerer. As a result of the curse, Odette is only allowed her human form at night. During the day, she exists only in the form of a white swan. A prince named Siegfried meets Odette in her human form and falls in love with her so Rothbart tricks the prince by transforming his own daughter, Odile, into the Black Swan, a seductress who looks just like Odette except she wears black. One reason why the lead role in Swan Lake is so coveted is because the same ballerina plays both the innocent and fragile White Swan and the seductive and uninhibited Black Swan. As such, the two roles are presented as opposite sides of the same coin. (I’ve always thought of the White Swan as representing what men idolize and the black swan representing what men actually desire.) The challenge is to be convincing in both roles while still perfectly executing the idealized movements of ballet.
Over the course of Black Swan, Nina is continually told (by Thomas) that she is perfect for the role of the innocent and sheltered White Swan but that she doesn’t have what it takes to be the sexy and uninhibited Black Swan. At one point, Thomas gives her a homework assignment for the role, ordering her to go home and touch herself. (Nina eventually does so just to suddenly realize, right when she’s on the verge of bringing herself to climax, that her mother is sleeping in the exact same room. This sudden shot of Barbara Hershey sleeping in that chair both made me jump and laugh at the same time.)
Thomas also suggests that Nina study that way that Lilly dances. In many ways, Lilly appears to be the exact opposite of Nina. (Though wisely, Aronofsky emphasizes how much Portman and Kunis — not to mention Ryder and Hershey — all resemble each other physically, therefore creating the feeling that we’re seeing four different versions of the same basic human being.) Whereas Nina’s every dance move appears to be the product of rigorous training, Lilly dancing follows her emotions. While Nina’s expression while dancing is always one of a grimly obsessive dedication, Lilly smiles and enjoys the moment. Whereas Nina is scared of sex and can barely bring herself to look a man in the eye, Lilly is openly flirtatious with both men and women. In short, Lilly is Nina’s Black Swan.
Even as Nina studies Lilly, Lilly starts to pursue Nina, even showing up at her apartment and inviting Nina out for a night on the town. Desperate to escape her controlling mother (whose goal seems to be to keep Nina as the innocent White Swan for the rest of her life), Nina goes out with Lilly. They hit the clubs, Lilly convinces Nina to drink a spiked drink, and soon Nina is making out with random men in corners and eventually with Lilly in a taxi cab.
Now, I know this is something that a lot of people are wondering about so I’ll just confirm it. Yes, Mila Kunis does go down on Natalie Portman in this film. And yes, it’s hot. But even more importantly, it works as something more than just a juvenile male fantasy of what we girls do when you guys aren’t around. When Nina touches Lilly, she is reaching out for and accepting the side of her personality that she’s previously tried to deny. She’s accepting what she knows could destroy her.
(SPOILERS BELOW READ CAREFULLY)
And sure enough, after her encounter with Lilly (which Lilly subsequently claims never happened), Nina’s world grows more and more distorted. She looks at the paintings that line her mother’s room and she sees a hundred faces laughing at her. On the subway, men leer at her. And suddenly, Thomas seems to be paying more attention to Lilly (who is named as her alternate) than to her. Lilly visits Beth in the hospital where Beth is recovering from a car accident. Beth responds to Lilly’s presence by mutilating herself with a fingernail file. And so things go until the film reaches its climax in a dizzying mix of dance and blood.
Much like ballet itself, Black Swan presents a very stylized view of existence and, in order for the film to work, the performances have to be perfect. I’m happy to say that everything you’ve heard about Natalie Portman in this film is correct. She gives a brilliant performance. The film doesn’t provide a definite explanation as to what lies at the root of Nina’s mental instability but the clues are all there in Portman’s subtle but effective performance. Perhaps even more importantly, Portman is convincing in the ballet sequences. She captures perfectly the rigorous and often times painful dedication that ballet demands. In the movie’s finale, as she dances on stage while her fragile world collapse around her, she was suddenly creating my own fantasy of what it would be like to be a true prima ballerina. Watching her, I felt her every move as if I was on the stage dancing the role. It left me exhausted and breathless and I have to admit that after the movie, I foundd myself crying for a solid hour as I realized that would truly be as close as I would ever get to living my old teenage fantasy.
Portman pretty much dominates the entire film but still leaves room for Hershey, Cassell, and especially Mila Kunis to give impressive performances. Alternatively loving and spiteful, Hershey is the stage mother from Hell. Cassell’s character is almost too sleazy for his own good but Cassell still has fun with the role and even adds a few notes of ambiguity. However, Mila Kunis is the true standout among the supporting players. Playing a role that requires her to be both likable and vaguely threatening, Kunis holds her own with Portman and proves here that she actually can act. Her character also provides the film with a few much-needed moments of humor. Lilly gets all the best one-liners and Kunis delivers them flawlessly.
So, I’m sure many people might be saying at this point, “That’s great that you loved it, Lisa Marie. But you’re like all convinced that this film is actually about you. What about us normal people who don’t really care about ballet? Is there anything here for us?”
That’s not an easy question for me to answer precisely because I do love ballet and I did relate a lot of this film to experiences — both good and bad — from my own life. It’s also an issue that Aronofsky acknowledges in a rather clever scene where Nina and Lilly flirt with two frat boy types who react to Nina’s talk of ballet with boredom. However, I do think that this film can be seen and appreciated by those who aren’t into ballet for the exact same reason why I loved The Wrestler despite being interested in professional wrestling like not at all.
I’ve always felt that ballet — and by that, I mean the whole experience of both the dancing and all the stuff that goes on before and after the actual dance — was in many ways the perfect metaphor for life.
For instance, in my experience, there were always two separate cliques in any dance school or company.
There was the group of dancers who had spent their entire lives preparing for the one moment they would become a prima ballerina. These were the girls who spent hours obsessing over their technique and who minutely examined every performance for the least little flaw. These were the girls who risked their health to maintain perfect dancer bodies. They obsessed over everything they ate, which struck me as strange since they usually just threw it all back up a few minutes later anyway. They had parents who not only spent the money to make them the best but who, unlike the rest of us, actually had the money to spend in the first place. These were the girls who knew every move they were supposed to make but they never knew why.
And then, there was the group that I was always a part of. We were the girls who never worried about perfect technique. We would laugh when we missed a step and we joked about our mistakes. When we danced, we followed our emotions and if that meant breaking a rule, so be it. The perfect girls hated us because, for the most part, we were more popular than they were because we allowed ourselves to be real as opposed to perfect. And we hated the perfect girls because we knew that they would eventually have the life that we fantasized about.
I used to think that was unique to ballet and certainly, in Black Swan, it’s clear that Portman would be one of the perfect girls and Kunis would be one of us. However, once my life was no longer solely about ballet, I realized that everyone was either a part of the perfect group or a part of the real group. It wasn’t just ballet. It was life, the conflict between those who try to create an idealized fantasy and those who simply take advantage of the randomness of everyday life. And, when I watched Black Swan, it was obvious that Aronofsky recognizes this as well.
Ballet is all about creating perfection, of telling a story through exactly choreographed movements. As the film progresses, it become obvious that the root of Nina’s psychosis is that the reality has not lived up to her idealized worldview. Nina hides from the real world because the real world, unlike ballet, is not messy. Movement in ballet is controlled but movement in reality is random and often frightening. However, by submerging her identity into ballet, Nina has fallen into another trap because, as a prima ballerina, her every movement has to be perfect. There’s no room for error. There’s no room for her to break free of Thomas’s choreography. Her every move has been dictated for her and not a single mistake can be tolerated.
And I guess that’s truly why this film got to me because who hasn’t felt like that? Who hasn’t felt as if the world is watching and waiting to pounce on you for failing to live up to their ideal? While I’m not suggesting that men don’t face unique pressures of their own, this theme especially hit home for me as a woman. Everyday, I wake up knowing that I’m being expected to live up to some sort of societal concept of perfection that was set up long before I was born by people I’ll never actually meet. Every day, I wake up knowing that I’m always look my best without flaunting it in a way that would suggest that I know I look my best, to find a husband and devote my life to the agonizing pain of childbirth, to suffer my period in respectful silence, to always be weak when I want to be strong, and certainly to never, ever view sex as anything other than a duty. It’s the type of expectation that leads every woman to consider embracing her own black swan. Some of us are brave enough to do it. And others, scared of being rejected as imperfect, simply try to pretend that they never saw it in the first place.
For me, that’s what Black Swan is truly about. It’s not about ballet and it’s not about Mila Kunis bringing Natalie Portman to orgasm. It’s about finding the courage to live life regardless of how scary it might be. Much as Aronofsky used pro wrestling to tell the story of everyone who ever refused to be anonymous and forgotten, Black Swan is the story of every one who ever struggled to reconcile the demands of society with the realities of existence.
Since this is an Aronofsky film, viewers will either love it or hate it. As exhilarating as I found that film’s finale to be, I can already hear other viewers saying, “What!?” As a director, Aronofsky has always been willing to walk that thin line between art and excess and you’re reaction to him will probably depend a lot on where you personally draw that line. Throughout the film, Aronofsky comes close to going over the top. However, he also directs the film in such a way as to make it clear that we’re not meant to be watching an exact recreation of reality. Instead, we view most of the film’s events through the prism of Nina’s own unstable mind and both the film’s grainy cinematography and the deliberately odd camera angles perfectly capture the feel of a mind losing its grip on reality.
Again, I should admit that I’m bipolar and, as such, I reacted very sympathetically to Nina’s struggle to distinguish the real world from the world created by her own paranoid fears because I recognized much of it from my last major manic episode. Now, would I have had a different reaction if not for my own personal experiences? The honest answer is that I don’t know. All I know is that Darren Aronofsky gets it right.
The film’s ending will surely be the root of not a little controversy. (Again: MAJOR SPOILER WARNING) Much like the end of the The Wrestler we’re left to wonder whether our main character has truly triumphed or if she’s been defeated. Is Aronofsky celebrating self-destruction or is he celebrating the individualistic impulse that leads people to pursue their passions no matter what the end result? Has Nina found true perfection and freedom or has she been destroyed by her own demons?
Aronofsky leaves it up to the viewer to decide and a lot of people won’t like that.
However, for me, Black Swan is the best film of 2010.