Love Affair: Black Swan

Easily my favorite movie of 2010, and perhaps of every film since then, is Black Swan. I can promise it has almost nothing to do with my crush on Natalie Portman (Thor, V for Vendetta) and a whole lot to do with director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream). The film is near perfection and is my love affair for the month of May.

The first thing I love about this film is how horrible Natalie Portman looks as Nina at the start of the film. She completely lacks confidence in everything but her execution of ballet. She’s a girl that assumes technique leads to perfection. As her Director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel, Eastern Promises) tells her, perfection isn’t technique alone. She lacks passion.

As Nina develops through the story and starts embracing her darker side, she changes visibly. When she first goes to Thomas to ask for the part of the swan queen, she’s awkward. She’s dressed up and is wearing lipstick. Her hair is also down, but instead of looking beautiful, she looks pitiful and scared. Her lips tremble and her gaze is always on the floor. She fidgets and her shoulders slumped. She’s already accepted defeat and is just going through the motions. Compare this look to when she stands up to her mother for the first time. Since the start of the movie, Nina’s mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey, Swing Kids) has been controlling and slightly manipulative. The rash on Nina’s shoulder is an example where this has played out a few times on screen. When Nina makes a snide remark about her mother’s less than impressive ballet career, Erica brings up Nina’s shoulder again, which is a way for her mother to reestablish her dominance. But Nina stands up to her, and this confrontation is what eventually leads to Nina going out for the night and partaking, for the first time in the film, in a social activity. But how Nina looks is completely different in this scene. She’s attractive. She’s not fidgeting, her hair is down, but it isn’t in her face. When she tells her mother no, she doesn’t do so quietly.

As the film continues, Nina becomes more and more attractive, more assertive, and much less restrained. I love this aspect of the film and the way Natalie Portman played the character. Every part of Nina, from the timid to the brave, is completely believable. She totally deserved the Oscar for this role.

As for Darren Aronofsky, I’m just glad he decided to make a were-swan movie and pulled it off. This is a metamorphosis film and it’s better realized than even Franz Kafka’s excellent version. Now, this movie isn’t really a scary film. It’s certainly not a horror film, though there are aspects of horror throughout. But here’s the thing; I’m always looking for scary movies that can actually make me feel remotely scared and it never happens. I still love the horror genre, but rarely because it makes me feel how you’re supposed to feel. But Black Swan does it to me every time I watch it. Starting from the scene where Nina decides to take all of Beth’s pilfered goods back to her in the hospital up until Nina wakes up with socks rubber banned over her hands. The vision of Beth (Winona Ryder, Edward Scissorhands) in the kitchen, the talking Nina drawings, smashing her mother’s fingers in the door, not once, but twice, all get me like no horror film ever has. It’s only a short segment of the film, but holy shit, it’s some of the most fantastic payoff in any film I’ve ever seen. I can watch this movie over and over again just for that segment. And that’s not even the finale!

Aronofsky may have made some pretty good films so far, and I’ve liked all of them that I’ve seen (with the exception of The Fountain, and I’m not sure that’s all too fair). But this is the film that made me an unquestioning believer. He’s making a biblical epic about Noah next. If you didn’t tell me who was directing it I’d probably laugh in your face. Instead, since it’s Aronofsky, I’m already sold. And then I find out that Black Swan was operating on such a small budget that when Natalie Portman broke a rib on set and found out there was no on set paramedics, she gave up her trailer to afford a medical staff. I had assumed this was a studio film all the way but that just wasn’t the case. I beg studios to not give him much money ever again for a film if this is what he can do when restrained.

And the character of Nina is a great template for this. I’m not entirely sure why she’s so awkward with people. She doesn’t hang out with anyone. Not once do we see her talking with others and being part of any group. She has her mother, and her mother is kind of crazy, so she definitely doesn’t count. Nina tries to defend Beth when the other ballerinas make fun of her age, and Nina gets completely shut down. And even before she has a principle part she’s seeing herself in complete strangers. She’s not really well to begin with. And so much of the movie we can see how everything happening is really playing with her neurosis. Being told she doesn’t have the part, then congratulating the other girl for getting it once it’s posted that Nina got the part, certainly doesn’t help her make friends. And Thomas keeps her guessing as well. Lilly (Mila Kunis, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) looks nearly identical to Nina, but lacks the technique and control. If Nina is the perfect white swan, then Lilly is the perfect black swan.

Then there’s the sexual tension. Thomas asks Nina directly if she’s a virgin and her response suggests that she is. Thomas has guessed quite correctly that this is possibly one of the reasons Nina lacks passion, so he asks her to touch herself and basically explore her more passionate side. Every slightly sexual encounter Nina has goes wrong. When she does touch herself, she realizes her mom is in the room with her. She tries again in the bathtub, but has a vision of drowning herself. She bites Thomas the first time he kisses her, and the next time he comes on to her, he walks away as soon as she falls for his advances. There is a suggestion with all of these scenes that there might be some history of sexual abuse in her past, or some shameful experience, to make her the way she is. Now I am going off the deep end here a little and guessing a lot, but Nina’s mother is a bit weird, she is constantly drawing pictures (awful ones at that, I might add) of Nina, and doesn’t allow Nina any privacy at all. Privacy is actually an issue that comes up a lot between Nina and her mother. Nina is forced to strip and helped to get dressed a few times in the film, and this is Nina’s first act of defiance; she finds a board in the trash room that she thinks will make a good door stop and keep her mother out of her room.

The entire sexual aspect of the film is very interesting, actually. Thomas is often indicated as a director who takes advantage of his girls sexually. Nina’s mother, Beth, and Lilly all imply this to different degrees, but we never see him this way at all. Not once does he take advantage of Nina, though he probably could have. When Nina, after fully becoming the black swan, kisses Thomas, his reaction is interesting. He seems completely surprised, but also very excited. Is he excited because Nina has completely transformed and the show is a success? Or is he excited because Nina has turned into a confident, sexual woman? Either way, his reaction doesn’t fit with the persona of a man who regularly uses his power for sex.

There are a lot of elements to this film I haven’t even explored. We could talk about the different realities Nina experiences and deconstruct those to find out what was real and what was imagined. We could explore Nina’s relationship to Beth. Just how much did Nina actually steal from Beth, anyway? Was it just possessions? What about Nina’s mother and her ballerina days. She mentions she doesn’t want Nina to make the same mistake she did after she asks Nina if Thomas has taken advantage of her. Just what actually happened? Who is Nina’s father? Many of these don’t have answers, some we could only guess at. But that’s part of what makes this movie so great. I love the performances; I love the chills I get every time Nina goes bat-shit insane. I love her transformation on stage to the actual black swan. I love the use of mirrors. I love the fight she has with herself in the dressing room. I love the way Nina says she was perfect and how Thomas asks her what she has done. This is a great film and one I will return to time and time again.

  • Daniel Qualls

    I saw the Black Swan on a trip down to Memphis, and surprised at how
    good it was. Lots of psychological creepiness (her mom, her
    hallucinations, her feet, etc.). Its a good one!