“How was Black Swan?” asked a text message from a good friend of mine.
I struggled with what to say for a minute before typing in my answer.
“…compelling,” I said.
He gave me a little bit of shit for that answer when I saw him later that evening, assuming I was being deliberately obtuse for the sake of trying to sound intellectual. But how would you sum up a film like Black Swan within the body of a cell phone text? "Compelling" was the best I could do considering the restrictions, and I don’t think the film deserves anything less.
Black Swan is a psychological thriller about a ballerina, Nina (played by Natalie Portman) whose obsessive quest for perfection turns into a paranoid descent into madness.
There are so many things going on concurrently in Black Swan that it would take multiple posts to examine them all. I’ll do my best to summarize them without devolving into incoherent drivel, but I make no promises.
Hey, it’s me we’re talking about, right?
Black Swan’s plot loosely follows the plot of Swan Lake, the in film ballet that Nina’s company has just announced as its next production. Nina covets the lead role of the White/Black Swan, and when the dance company’s star performer (played by Winona Ryder) is given her walking papers, she sees her opportunity. But the director (Vincent Cassel) thinks that Nina is too tight and sexually repressed to take on the role of the Black Swan. He provokes her to action, and when she lands the role unexpectedly she is unprepared for the pressures suddenly heaped on her by herself, her side show freak of a mother (Barbara Hershey), the ballet’s director, and by the threat of the new, free spirited dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who may or may not be gunning for Nina’s role.
The film explores themes of internal struggle, obsession, repressed sexuality, and vicariousness. For my money, the most horrifying and sobering statement the movie makes is concerning parents and how our pasts affect the development of our own children. Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mom is a terrifying force to be reckoned with. She dominates Nina’s world like a passive/aggressive puppeteer. Her face trembles with rage at times, and her contempt for the accidental child that ruined her shot at glory is barely concealed behind the mask of a twisted smile. Nina’s entire identity is completely tied up in her mother. Everything she is and has become is a result of her mother’s aborted and lamented ambitions. The tiny ballerina in the music box that sits on Nina’s nightstand is a beautifully simple metaphor for her life: Nina is a toy. Frozen in time, reality held in check by the sheer desire of her mother to keep the toy in its box forever. Much has been made about Portman’s portrayal of Nina (and it is well deserved), but I think Hershey’s turn as her control freak mom has been seriously overlooked.
Mila Kunis flawlessly executes her role as the uninhibited Lily. She could be a figment of Nina’s imagination—the Black Swan incarnate and representative of all of the dark, sexual repression that Nina realizes she must let go of in order to truly embody the role of White/Black Swan. Vincent Cassel as the ballet director Thomas Leroy, explains that the Princess Odette in Swan Lake becomes trapped in the body of a swan, and in order to obtain freedom she must first find love. But when Odette’s lover is duped by the evil Black Swan/Odile, she realizes that only in death will she find true freedom. Aronofsky does a wonderful job illustrating Nina’s pent up sexual feelings, but he also subtly ties Odette’s lack of freedom to Nina’s in a couple of scenes where she has to bar the door to the bathroom and her bedroom just to get a moment of privacy.
With Lily’s help, Nina eventually begins to let go and explore her darker side. But when she cuts the metaphorical puppet strings her mother has held for so long, the innocent Nina flounders and starts down a path to insanity. Sabotaged by a parent that has ridden roughshod over her emotional development for so long, Nina struggles to find an identity she’s never been allowed to develop. In the end, Nina finds freedom, perhaps in the most obvious and unfortunate way.
Black Swan commands the viewer’s attention from start to finish. Employing a visually stunning tapestry of monochromatic blacks and whites to emphasize the subconscious struggles of the main character with her alter ego, an eerie score that only adds to the visceral feeling of terror, and the careful placement of some of the creepiest imagery I’ve ever seen in a movie Aronofsky and Co. manage nothing short of a masterpiece. I could hardly bare to look down to jot notes, so captivated was I by the events unfolding on screen. Black Swan is bold movie making at this level of the game, and it must have been a risk for the studio. But the strangeness of it all and the unexpectedness of it only makes it that much more of a cinematic marvel. One that will no doubt be the subject of study for future film students.
I’ll see this again when it comes out on Blu Ray and DVD.