Tuesday, December 28, 2010

No Nutcracker, Just Nuts. Black Swan Review

BLACK SWAN

We, the audience of Black Swan, should not be faulted for needing a primer to the story of the ballet Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky's music will probably be familiar to many, but for the most part I figure it's a safe bet that few of us attend a ballet performance outside of Christmas. Director Darren Aronofsky has therefore been gracious enough to give us the gist of what all the bouncing about involves thanks to the dialogue spoken by Thomas (Vincent Cassell), the ballet director.

Normally, I would find this bit of background info a bit obnoxious, but given the subject matter, this is a case when it is to our benefit, and it doesn't interfere with the story's flow.

As it stands, Black Swan asks a great deal of viewers: to distinguish between reality and fantasy, to see a near-total mental breakdown where we have to figure out what is real and what is in the main character's mind. Aronofsky has done what few have been able to do: make ballet look dangerous, if not downright psychotic.

Nina (Natalie Portman) has been toiling away in the ballet company, much to the frustration not just of herself but of her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer herself. Both of them, as well as Thomas, know she has talent, but somehow the passion is not there.

As fate would have it, an opportunity has arisen. Thomas is seeking a prima ballerina for the two roles in Swan Lake: the innocent White Swan and the villainous Black Swan, now that his previous star, Beth (Wynona Ryder), is being pushed into retirement. Nina's technique make her the perfect White Swan, but Thomas is reluctant to give her the role because she does not have the full fury to carry off the seductive and dark Black Swan role to his satisfaction.

Enter Lilly (Mila Kunis), a young dancer full of, to borrow a line from All About Eve, "fire and music", whose tattoos and uninhibited demeanor make her a near-absolute counterpoint to the refined and repressed Nina. In spite of herself, Nina allows some darkness to emerge, convincing Thomas to give her the role. As Nina delves deeper into herself (sometimes via auto-erotic exercises, sometimes with a little lesbianism), she becomes more and more consumed with her own dark side, plunging her further and further into mental instability.

Nina eventually gives herself totally to her role as the Black Swan, but now unable to see if either her actions or those of others are real or not. Is Lilly trying to seduce her? Has Nina committed murder? By the end, Nina grip on reality is held together only onstage: when she's not dancing, she is not herself.



At the end of Black Swan, my mind gravitated to thoughts of the film A Double Life. Both touch on similar themes (a performer who becomes so enmeshed in the role one can't tell one from the other). However, it would be more honest to say that the script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin creates a contemporary version of Swan Lake itself.

Nina's suspicions that Lilly (who always wears black) is attempting to steal her job (and her Prince/Director) from the rightful owner (Nina herself, almost always in white) reflect the plot of the ballet. As the Black Swan drives the White Swan to suicide, so does the Dark Side of Nina drive the sane part of Nina to a psychological, even physical breakdown.

Aronofsky shows us the unraveling of Nina's mind through a subtle method: her clothes and home. When we first see Nina, her room could be that of a little girl, and in fact her mother treats her as if she were a child rather than as a young woman in her twenties. The room is filled with stuffed animals, with pink as the dominating color, and even a music box with a little ballerina playing music from Swan Lake. For most of the film, Nina is dressed in white.


It isn't until she goes out with Lilly, over the strenuous objection of Mother Erica, that she starts to delve into darkness. Lilly hands her black undergarments, and Nina puts them on. Once on, she willingly tries a little Ecstasy, and then has a sexual encounter with Lilly that may or may not have actually occurred. Nina soon adds dark colors to her ensemble, and throws out her toys.

Now, I want to make it clear: this process doesn't happen quickly, nor does putting on the black undergarments cause a sudden change in Nina's character as if they had magical powers. Rather, Aronofsky was I think sending out the message that Nina was starting to embrace darkness in her world, but with that, she was also losing her grip on reality. The fact that she breaks her music box, leaving a dismembered ballerina, reflects her own mental state. Those kinds of touches are subliminal, but brilliant.

Portman's performance is what holds your attention throughout Black Swan. Her Nina already appears slightly on edge, as if she is holding on merely because she knows no other way to behave. As she pushes herself to be both the White and Black Swans, she soon cannot distinguish between insane acts and her own life. Her transformation is gradual, making of Nina a person who finds that she is pushing herself past sanity but determined to press ahead lest she lose the role of a lifetime. It's as if Nina yearns to breathe free: from her mother's expectations, from her own inhibitions, but also yearns to pull herself back to respectability and the security of being a child.

The push-pull between her own version of the Swans is what fascinates you.

Matching her in acting is Kunis, a totally liberated girl who just lives life as she wants to yet totally grounded in reality. She doesn't have either the technique or the hang-ups that plague Nina, but unlike her Lilly doesn't care: dancing allows her to feel, as opposed to Nina, to whom dancing allows her to be.



Even though they have smaller roles, both Hershey and Ryder leave their mark. Erica, from what I saw in Black Swan, knows her daughter can become too engrossed in her dancing and tries to keep her from going over the edge but appears to go about it by locking her in a child-like state. She is a clinging, overbearing woman who appears at times a little nutty herself.

Ryder, as the prima ballerina facing the end of her career, expresses the anger and resentment of being pushed aside for another, and her final scene (which in all likelihood is another of Nina's episodes) is still frightening to watch.

If I were to find any fault in Black Swan, it would be Aronofsky's camera work, which was at times a little dizzying. To his credit, it did give us a bird's-eye view of what the dancers see (no pun intended), but I was getting a little disoriented by it all. Again, it's really a minor point.

Nina, I wrote in my notes, breaks and breaks down, falls and falls apart throughout Black Swan, both in the actual recital and in her own life. It is when one gives himself/herself over to their own fears and obsessions that one becomes capable of anything. There is a high cost to perfection, the film seems to say, especially when to that individual, there is nothing apart from your obsession.

At the end, she is the Swan, both Black and White, sometimes quite literally. In the end, it is dangerous when The Dancer Becomes The Dance, especially when it is a Danse Macabre.

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