Monday, January 17, 2011

Black Swan

Possible Spoilers..

I was about to throw out last Monday's calendar page, torn from the desktop one that has tidbits of wisdom for each day. Here's what it read:

The need for perfection and the desire for inner tranquility conflict with each other. Whenever we are attached to having something a certain way, better than it already is, we are, almost by definition, engaged in a losing battle.

Noticing this was funny because I had just watched BLACK SWAN, Darren Aronofsky's latest forage into darkness. The above could nicely encapsule a pop psychoanalysis of this film's heroine, Nina Sayers (a seemingly fearless Natalie Portman). We learn quickly of her blinding drive to be the lead, the swan queen, in a NYC ballet company's production of Swan Lake. As we see in the opening sequence (a dream), she covets this role as an opportunity to display gracefulness and power both as the white swan (innocence) and the black swan (recklessness, darkly sensual).

Nina has the innocence part down; real life informs that strongly. Well into her 20s, she still lives with her mother (Barbara Hershey), herself once a promising dancer, in a claustrophobic apartment that will alternate as a safe haven and prison, depending on the day. Nina's bedroom is still filled with childhood toys and a music box dancer that her mother likes to spin as she tucks her daughter in for the night.

Nina also has her overall technique honed to an intuitive level. She's almost flawless in her moves, but her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), sees inhibition and rigidity that does not convince him that Nina can pull off the abandon needed for the black swan persona. Rather, understudy Lily (Mila Kunis), fresh from the West Coast, is loose and seductive; nothing seems to be holding her down. She exudes the sort of spontaneity that convinces you to join her for drinks and possible debauchery the night before an important dress rehearsal.

Beth (Winona Ryder) is Nina's predecessor, the former lead and protege of the lecherous Thomas. Imagine the whispers from the rest of the company. We hear some of the younger dancers in the dressing rooms dismiss Beth as a has-been "heading toward menopause". Soon, Nina will witness Beth's violent breakdown as the latter "retires" from the lead. There are uncomfortable confrontations among the women and Thomas, and finally an act of (possible) self-mutilation by Beth. How crushing to see a former bright light reduced to a psychological and physical wreck. Maybe it was unavoidable.

Nina gets the lead and almost immediately suffers from wild paranoia (what was the look between Lily and Thomas?) and bizarre visions (her mother's gallery of artwork seems to scream at her). Aronofsky allows the line to blur between what's really happening and what Nina's internal hell displays. Nina's insecurities and stunted maturity leave her filled with nausea and despair with every rehearsal, every exchange with her colleagues. At one point, she'll give in and ingest recreational chemicals, leading to an encounter with Lily that may reveal things about her own sexuality, something to which she has either repressed or not paid much attention. Thomas recognizes this, and gives her a homework assignment earlier in the film: "go home and touch yourself; live a little."

BLACK SWAN seems to be about a young woman's awakening to her darkest impulses. That's really it in one sentence. It isn't clear if Nina deliberately tried to squash her emotional and sexual development, or if that was a by-product of her fierce devotion to her craft during her formative years. What is clear is how her eventual awakening will lead to her stunning bow on opening night, a commanding, take-no-prisoners performance that redefines everything. The last scenes of this film are so amazing and powerful I wanted to hand Ms. Portman the Oscar right then and there.

Leading up to that is what might be called a "psychological horror film", but many of the scenes Aronofsky orchestrates are straight out of more traditional horror. Shards of glass as weapons, Clint Mansell's appropriately dissonant music (actually Tchaikovsky's ballet performed backwards), twisted faces. I was reminded of Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA, an unsettling terror film/drama also set against the world of ballet. Also, the works of Bunuel and David Lynch. The director shoots in his patented graininess, evoking the spirits of the demons of other filmmakers yet creating his own unique stomach churner. Many scenes are beset with frightening imagery and a surprising amount of bloodletting. There are murders, but are they real? While many critics advise the viewer not to try to figure it out, the screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLoughlin, to me, was pretty clear: this is a peak inside the black soul of a perfectionist, with all of the associated dysfunction real life suffers in its wake.

The blueprint for the film suggests yet another backstage drama filled with bitchy, competitive young women who spout slangy insults and have affairs with their coaches. That is not an entirely inaccurate description of BLACK SWAN, but if you're going expecting just a ballet drama, you're in for it, as you may have surmised by now.

The final scene will remind some viewers of Aronofsky's previous, THE WRESTLER, a dark film in its own right but nothing like BLACK SWAN. Both movies examine profesionals who perfect their crafts but cannot quite reconcile offstage life. There is no balance. This film is strong meat, regardless of whether you think it is an absurd melodrama, a pretentious bit of surrealism, or an effective case study of a specific illness, the need for perfection. All three would be correct, in my opinion. There is no contentment in Nina's world, that is, until her final moments, when her acceptance of her darkest impulses leads to unbridled freedom, a complete surrender of uncertainly, and a cold, starkly evil satisfaction. Just watch her eyes.

"I was perfect".
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