Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Films of 2010: Black Swan

“We all know the story. Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince, but before he can declare his love, her lustful twin, the black swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated the white swan leaps of a cliff killing herself and, in death, finds freedom.

-       Black Swan (2010)

Early in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), a ballet director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) describes his choice to re-invent the Russian folk story and Tchaikovsky libretto, Swan Lake (1875). His goal is to take that well-established work and “strip it down," and "make it visceral and real.” Not coincidentally, that task is very much the one that film director Aronofsky undertakes himself in terms of the film’s narrative and direction.

The doppelganger or evil double is a central tenet of Swan Lake, embodied by the wizard Von Rothbart’s seductive daughter, Odile, who closely resembles the beautiful and cursed “Swan Queen,” Odette.  Historically, one ballerina has typically essayed both roles in this work, despite the fact that Odette and Odile are two distinct and separate individuals.  However, in keeping with the tone and content of the early  psychological thrillers of Roman Polanski such as Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976), Aronofsky knowingly dispatches external supernatural flourishes such as doppelgangers and instead positions the evil personage inside the good one…as part of the good one.  In other words, Aronofsky’s Swan Queen – Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) – possesses the seeds of the darkness within her very psyche, and it is that internal evil that is brought forth during the course of the film.  Thus he has made "real" (rather than super-real or supernatural) the familiar and perhaps even trite narrative of Swan Lake.

If we proceed from this conceit of one person as a damaged schizophrenic -- as both Swan Queen and Black Swan, both Odette and Odile -- then Black Swan becomes understandable as the tale of a young woman with a very fragile identity.  It’s an identity so fragile, in fact, that it is “darkened” by at least three other apparently external black swans in the film.  They take the form of her mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey), the former lead dancer of the White Swan's company, Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), and last but not least, her rival as lead ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis).  At points, these apparently different black swans seem to morph and change shape, indicating that they are all actually "one," part of the same, dark personality.

These three “black swans,” along with a fickle royal prince -- the company director, Thomas -- ultimately drive Nina, a kleptomaniac, to bring forth a second, darker, repressed identity.  The ironic thing about the creation of this “other” psyche is that such creation is deemed absolutely necessary, in some sense, by the demands of performing Swan Lake.  After all, a person who has never taken a walk on the dark side can’t portray the dark side effectively.  That is the paradox that Nina grapples with throughout the narrative.  To be the best she can possibly be -- to be perfect -- she must let the dormant monster within be birthed.  And yet once let loose, this beast is not easily controlled.  Instead, it demands its “turn” as the dominant psyche.

Aronofsky depicts this personal and incredibly intense struggle between competing psyches in symbolic visual terms throughout Black Swan.  For example, the film is dominated by shots of both Nina and her reflection in the mirror, a composition which signifies the doubling of her identity.  Secondly, he uses what I like to term “intrusion” shots.  These intrusion shots are compositions wherein the camera follows Nina and then tracks her into new and stressful locales, whether a bar, a reception for the ballet company, her apartment, or any other setting.  In such shots, both the camera and Nina are literally intruding into crowds, into established “realities” where she must either remain composed…or possibly psychologically splinter.  These intrusion shots amp up the film's visual stress level, just as Nina's stress level is elevated by her entrance into closed, seemingly hostile domains.  What is that cluster of ballerinas laughing about?  Why are all those people over there looking over here?  What do all these people want from me?  These are the questions the frequent "intrusion" compositions seem to ask, thus visually suggesting paranoia.

Finally, Black Swan pinpoints a visual conceit for Thomas's decision to make “visceral” the drama encoded into the narrative of Swan Lake.  Instead of providing us with the expected proscenium arch and entire stage in long, uninterrupted master shot compositions, Aronofsky and his director of photography, Matthew Libatique fracture that staid frame during moments of dance for a world of intense, hand-held, immediacy-provoking spins and lunges.  This is the metaphorical act of going inside Swan Lake -- of deconstructing it --  just as the movie goes inside the head of Nina to show us both the White Swan and Black Swan elements of her psyche.

Technically and conceptually brilliant, and bolstered by a stunning, completely committed performance from Natalie Portman, Black Swan thus satisfies my highest critical criterion: it utilizes imagery to mirror or augment narrative content. More so, Black Swan accomplishes this task in a manner that we absolutely associate with the horror genre.  Through jump scares, digital morphing, monstrous make-up and other tools of that ghoulish trade, Black Swan depicts a  fierce war within; one which Nina must ultimately embrace if she is to transform Swan Lake from a sterile  presentation to a personal, searing artistic statement.  To make her dual role real and visceral, Nina must live it all, and so the film is a visual representation of her doing just that.

“Which of you can embody both swans? The white and the black?

After awaking from a dream in which she dances the part of the White Swan, ballerina Nina Sayers (Portman) returns to her company in the City only to learn that the director, Thomas Leroy (Cassel) will be auditioning dancers for the lead role in his re-invention of Swan Lake.  Nina believes she could flourish in the role, but Thomas is concerned that she can’t “let go” enough to make the Black Swan a compelling, seductive figure.  He worries she is too controlled, and not in touch with her emotions.

After Nina unexpectedly bites Leroy during a stolen kiss, he has a change of heart and casts her as his lead.  The move is not uncontroversial.  The former lead ballerina, Beth (Ryder) has been cast-off because of her advanced age, and still harbors rage about the decision.  And a new dancer from San Francisco, Lily (Mila Kunis) has her eye on Nina’s lead role, especially since she is so able to readily “let go” as the Black Swan. 

Meanwhile, Nina’s controlling, obsessive mother, Erica (Hershey) – a failed dancer, herself – keeps sending her daughter messages that imply Nina will break under the pressure of dancing both the White Swan and the Black Swan.

Nina attempts to let go – to find the passion inside of herself – but is stymied at every turn by her domineering mother and by Lily’s efforts to undercut her in Thomas’s eyes.  Finally, Nina’s psyche shatters, a happenstance that allows her dark side, at last, to emerge…but with fatal results.  Yet in keeping with the story of Swan Lake, it is strongly implied that freedom awaits Nina on the other side of death...

“Go ahead, jump! You'll be fine. Jump!

Not since Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973) and its pervasive use of split-screens, perhaps, has a film focused with such dedication on the visual conceit of "doubling," or a splintered psyche.  In Black Swan, we are constantly treated to views of “The two Ninas,” one light, one dark, but each vying for control.  In this case, we don’t get split screens, but rather carefully-constructed shots that double her presence in the frame: views of Nina looking into a subway window and seeing her reflection, views of Nina before a mirror during rehearsals, and even shots of Nina – splintered – in a multi-faceted mirror in the apartment she shares with Mom.  The dramatic point of the pervasive “the two Ninas” imagery is to reflect her internal battle, her selection to cede perfectionist and obsessive control of her dancing (and life) to chaos…and eventually darkness.

The frequent mirror shots escalate to full-throated terror as Black Swan reaches its dramatic conclusion.  Soon, the reflection Nina sees in every mirror begins to move on its own, taking on malevolent, independent life in her eyes.  And finally, the Black Swan and White Swan fight it out -- importantly -- over a broken mirror, a symbol that the dam has broken, so-to-speak, and that Nina's mind is now in full-scale war with itself.  Even the film’s murder weapon – a glass shard from that broken mirror – reflects the ongoing motif regarding mirrors and the doubling of Nina’s psyche.

Reflection #1: Rehearsal.

Reflection #2: A sign of physical stress?

Reflection #3: The Black Swan emerges.

Reflection #4: Another sign of physical damage?

Reflection #5: A face in darkness.

Reflection #6: Failure.

Reflection #7: From white to black.

Finally, shattered reflection.

Less obvious, but equally ubiquitous, are the film’s multiple “intrusion” shots, which I mentioned in the introduction.  In these tracking shots, Nina enters a new locale, where the loyalties and disposition of other people are unknown to her.  The camera follows the lead ballerina into crowds, down twists and turns, and even on stage, and the idea underlining this brand of imagery is of an uncertain person going before an audience (appropriate for a performer), or even into a lion’s den.  We see in these shots mostly the back of Nina’s head, and that’s appropriate, because she is, in some fashion, locked in an uncertain state of becoming.  She is not yet the Black Swan, or even the White Swan for that matter.  Nina intersects with a hostile or at least ambiguous world throughout the film, and these shots are physical manifestations of that intersection, a sign of her uncertain state in the world.

Intrusion #1: Back to the lion's den.

Intrusion #2: What are they laughing about?

Intrusion #3: Where's Mom?

Intrusion #4: About to take center stage.

Intrusion #5: The Black Swan reigns supreme.

And who, we must ask, charts Nina's path through this uncertain world?  Well, there’s the master manipulator himself, Thomas (Cassel), but I submit the film actually focuses more intently on the three Black Swans whom Nina so assiduously orbits and attempts to break free from. 

Her mother, Erica (Hershey), is perhaps the darkest of the Black Swans.  Erica universally wears a black wardrobe, and is consumed by the idea of living “through” her daughter, very much how the Black Swan lives through her intentional misrepresentation to the prince; by pretending to be the White Swan.  Erica so fully sees Nina as an extension of herself that she even grooms Nina (by cutting her nails, for instance) and makes notation of "our" favorite flavor of cake.  To her, Nina is not a separate entity.

In other words, Nina constantly attempts to subsume Nina’s identity into her own.  Nina lives and dances only so that Erica’s life and career are not failures and that so, vicariously at least, Erica receives the glory (if, again, reflected through the lens of her daughter).  We see this relationship symbolized in the film through the use of color -- black (Erica) vs. white (Nina) -- and through the canny placement of certain props in the background.  Notice that during one close-up of the pinched, drawn Erica, we can clearly view a white, gilded bird cage behind her.  That cage, of course, is for the White Swan, for Nina.

Erica is a truly insidious character, permanently infantalizing her daughter by consigning Nina to the bedroom of a twelve-year-old girl, a realm decorated in pre-adolescent pinks and with plush, stuffed animals and ivory ballerinas.  But it is Erica who likes pink, not Nina, as we can see from her "pink" telephone screen, emblazoned with the word "MOM."  Erica has fashioned this whole world for her daughter in an attempt to assure that Nina is a carbon-copy of her.  

And yet, by the same token, Erica is also terribly afraid of being eclipsed by Nina, and so her encouragement  also boasts a terrible dark side.  She can’t stand to see her daughter succeed where she failed.  Whenever Nina shows the slightest sign of independence, Erica complains that she is no longer a little princess, no longer “her” Nina.  There is no way, then, to please her and still establish a sense of self.

The film’s second black swan is Beth, a woman whose rage and jealousy knows no bounds.  When she is forcibly retired, she goes mad.  She lets her inner black swan escape, as Thomas acknowledges:  Everything Beth does comes from within. From some dark impulse. I guess that's what makes her so thrilling to watch. So dangerous. Even perfect at times, but also so damn destructive.” 

In other words, Beth has sacrificed discipline and control -- Nina's trademark qualities -- and let go too much.  Ironically, this is exactly what Lily and Thomas almost constantly implore Beth to do: to “let go,” to “live a little.”  But the example of Beth, this particular Black Swan, reveals the dangers of doing so, of going too far.

Then there’s black swan # 3, Lily (Kunis).  Young, sexy and extremely liberated, Lily is a little less twisted by life than either Erica or Beth.  But she still makes no bones about getting what she wants, no matter if she has to step over Nina to get it.  Lily introduces Nina to recreational drugs the night before an important rehearsal on stage, and there’s a case to be made that everything that happens in the film after this point is actually the result of drug-induced psychosis.  Regardless, Lily attempts to sabotage Nina, first by “tattling” to Thomas that she is overworked, and secondly by introducing Nina to perception-altering drugs.  Then, she attempts to take Nina’s place, as alternate, when Erica calls in sick for Nina.

With friends like these…

Black Swan #1: Erica.  Notice the gilded white cage behind her.

Black Swan #2: Beth.  Everything about her comes from a dark impulse.

Black Swan #3: Lily, with the black tattoo.

And Black Swan #4: Nina.
It is the combined actions of these three black swans that finally bring Nina’s dark side from the world of the other side, the mirror, into dominance in her own psyche.  The final straw is a vision – perhaps real, perhaps not  real – of Lily making love to Thomas; a direct allusion to the prince falling in love with the wrong girl in Swan Lake.

Given the stresses she endures through out the film, it’s no wonder that Nina’s dance moments on stage (and in rehearsal) are staged as though visual assaults; with hand-held urgency, dizzying spins and whirling turns.   These movements reflect Nina’s stress and lack of control.  She’s not just going on stage, she’s going into battle…into dedicated combat.  Incidentally, and with apologies to lovers of theater, these sequences explain why, in a nutshell, film is inherently superior to the stage.  

On stage, we must always view action from a certain physical distance, and with physical distance comes emotional distance too.  But through formalist editing, film can show us the things we need to see -- at the distance we need to see them -- to compel us to feel and experience emotion.  Our eyes can be directed to a montage, to distortions of time and space, to other factors that can’t easily be conveyed via the theatrical experience.  It’s funny that some critics thought to call Black Swan theatrical, because it’s actually the absolute opposite of theatrical.  Along with the supernatural, the film rips away any sense of artificiality, and lands us inside the psychic swoon of a mentally unstable dancer.  We don't get the distance or theatrical restraint of the proscenium arch here. Instead we take a trip to the brink of madness.

The stage can't put you this close.

Or show you this.

Or this. 

It’s illuminating too, to consider how Black Swan uses a real psychological disorder, Kleptomania to add to its (realistic) case about Nina’s release of-and-from tight control.  Kleptomania is generally associated with  depression, and feelings of extreme stress.  With Kleptomania there are often “intrusion feelings” (going back to those “intrusion” tracking shots I noted above) where imagination and fantasy are coupled with reality, and it is impossible to tell which is which.  I believe this is very much the case with Nina. She drives herself, veritably, to schizophrenia, taxing her body and mind to the point that it can’t distinguish memory from dreams, or memory from nightmares.

And what remains remarkable and ironic about all of this is that Nina’s efforts to excavate a part of herself – the second, dark Nina – creates great art.  This is an important and little-investigated component of the film.  With the drive to create art also comes the drive to push oneself to the limit, to scale heights never before scaled.  Although it is easy to perceive Black Swan’s ending as wholly negative and tragic since it involves Nina’s death, one must not forget her final epiphany.  “I felt it,” she states.  “I was perfect.”  She finally achieved what she set out to achieve.  She drove herself to the limit of her capabilities and beyond, and in the process gave a performance for the ages.   From her perspective, then, the journey was worth it, no matter how it finally ended.   She dies to orgasmic shouts from the audience “Nina! Nina! Nina!”  She beat the limitations imposed by her mother, she upstaged Lily, and she never suffered the same fate as Beth.  She had to shatter her own psyche to do it, but she killed…if you get my meaning.  And finally, the screen fades not to black (which would indicate a triumphant Black Swan), but to white, which of course is indicative of the White Swan.  In the end, the goodness in Nina is what won out.

So while one can certainly read the film as a cautionary tale of what happens when an athletic figure or artist is exploited or pushed too far, there's another possible interpretation.  Black Swan also reckons with the (perhaps trite) idea of the “suffering artist.”   How far would you go to really do your best?  Perhaps we should ask Marlon Brando (if he were still around), or Robert De Niro, or…in point of fact…Natalie Portman.  What wouldn’t you put yourself through to reach the absolute apex of your art?  To be the best there ever was?

I realize some people may get angry with this perspective, or feel that I’m romanticizing mental illness, emotional abuse and every other aspect of Nina’s harrowing experience.  My wife wasn't pleased with my interpretation, for example.  But, again, I just point out – and this is very much a horror movie-type theme – when you’re faced with adversity, you use that adversity to, as Thomas notes, “transcend” it.  In a way, this was also the theme of Martyrs (2008).  Here, it isn't ballet that makes Nina miserable, it's her mother.  It's jealousy.  It's passion.  It's all those things others are telling her to feel, but which she has avoided.

Dream or destiny? Death or apotheosis?
In some fashion, Nina – by unshackling herself from reality – transcends these vicissitudes, upsets and stresses of her daily life and achieves a kind of apotheosis.  If we recall the story of Swan Lake (at least as it is described in the film), the White Swan kills herself…and then finds peace

I believe that at film's end Nina finally finds the peace she could not find in life.  And furthermore, the film's opening phantasm...of the White Swan dancing under a warm white light, is a prophecy of this final, serene disposition.  So while Black Swan is so disturbing a film, there's a way that you can look at the denouement and feel satisfied.  We would be fools to assume that Nina – so driven to perfection – in the end could settle for anything less than a truly perfect method performance.  And that's what she gives the audience,  through the unlikely auspices of madness itself. 

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