Good Girl Gone Bad: Black Swan

DARREN ARONOFSKY’S Black Swan—a psychosexual horror film about a tormented ballerina who, in the pursuit of perfection, spirals ever deeper into paranoia, hysteria and insanity—is a magnificently thrilling fusillade of sight, sound and delectable B-movie pleasures. Natalie Portman is Nina Sayers, a virginal dancer on the cusp of her twenties who dreams of playing the lead role in her company’s adventurous new production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” a ballet about an enchanted princess who, under the influence of a spell cast by an evil sorcerer, is transformed into a white swan; she is able to return to her human form only at night. She falls in love with a prince, and, in order to break the spell, she needs him to love her back—but he falls in love with the sorcerer’s daughter, a black swan, so she drowns herself. Both swans are played by the prima ballerina.

Metaphorically caged by her overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey, Lantana, Hannah and Her Sisters), Nina has been mollycoddled to the point of regression: she seems, throughout much of the film’s first half, considerably younger and much less emotionally sure of herself than someone her age should be. Her domineering mother—who mourns her own failed career as a dancer, and relentlessly paints creepy portraits of her “sweet, sweet girl”—isn’t her only worry, though: Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, La Haine, Romain Gavras’ forthcoming Notre Jour Viendra), the stringent director of the New York City ballet, chastises Nina for her awkwardness and lack of sensuality. (He’s more Balanchine than Baryshnikov, apparently, and was originally meant to have been played by a Russian—though Cassel’s interpretation is firebrand enough.) He sees her as perfectly suited to the role of Odette, the white swan, but, in order to be able to play the full part in his vibrant, pseudo-postmodern reimagining of the ballet, she must also master the flipside of the dual role, Odile, the black swan of the film’s title, as well as be able to convey the gamut of emotions common to both sides of the character. After he manages to get her to convince him that she should be given the part, Thomas gives in and casts her.

Like many ballerinas, Nina’s life is consumed by dance, and has been from a very young age. She eats, drinks and sleeps tutus, pas de deux and pirouettes. To compound what she has to deal with at home, the ballet profession, as Portman has noted in interviews, deliberately infantilises dancers (most obviously, and somewhat inappropriately, calling them “girls,” not women), trying as hard as possible to keep them spookily immature. Portman has mentioned that the film is not just about Nina’s attempt to perfect the Odette-Odile role, but also her transition from an opprobrious, entrenched pre-adolescence to adulthood.

LILY (Mila Kunis), a dancer recently arrived from San Francisco, sports a menacing tattoo of a swan’s wingspan across her back, and is the free-spirited inverse of Nina: graceful, yes, but also brazenly sexual, and in absolute command of every situation she encounters. She poses a threat to Nina, inasmuch as the two are in placed in direct competition for the coveted Odette-Odile role, and, once Nina gets the role, Lily is positioned as Nina’s alternate (the ballet-world equivalent of a theatrical understudy). Kunis really is the the best possible choice for the role: first, she and Portman are roughly the same age and look like they could almost be sisters. Second, her and Portman’s voices are so similar; Kunis’ voice is smokier and a bit lower in tone, but the way they both clip the ends of words and the general register of their voices lends credence to the dopplegänger aspect of her character.

In a spot of meta-casting, Wynona Ryder stars as Beth McIntyre, a prima ballerina who, at the ripe old age of 35, is retiring—but not entirely of her own volition. With The Wrestler in 2008, Aronofsky reignited Mickey Rourke’s career; he’s mentioned that he hopes his new film will do the same to Ryder’s—that he’s at the “front end” of a new chapter in her career—though this apparent rejuvenation, post-shoplifting fiasco, isn’t very clear in the film itself. Aronofsky explains that he (somewhat cruelly) cast Ryder because, ten years ago, she might have been perfect for the role of Nina. Beth, who grows to despise Thomas for rejecting her both sexually and professionally, becomes a more terrifyingly significant character as the film progresses—a beacon of increasingly tawdry ghoulishness who exists to show Nina what she might eventually become if she becomes Thomas’ next “little princess.”

OVER TIME, Lily and Nina’s rivalry develops into an extremely close friendship; Lily unexpectedly arrives at the apartment where Nina lives with her mother and drags her out for a night of dinner and dancing—and drugs, and sex. The club scene mid-way through this sequence is one of the best since James Gray’s modern masterpiece Two Lovers: the cinematography (on which more later), matched perfectly to an appropriately throbbing house beat (supplied by the Chemical Brothers) in sync with oodles of red-green strobe laser-lights, is incredible.

As her relationship with Lily accelerates and the pressure of practising for the lead role starts to get to her, Nina begins a descent into madness which takes its toll on her both mentally and physically. Her bulimia intensifies, and she’s stalked by visions and hallucinations: she begins to see herself (or a version of herself) in others’ faces. Leading up to her début performance, other manifestations of psychosis begin to manifest corporeally: her skin bristles with gooseflesh; her nails, already bitten down to the quick, start to deteriorate; her feet become webbed; she (literally) tears strips off herself, and lesions on her back multiply to make way for the feathers that sprout around her shoulder blades.

Portman had been a ballet dancer until she was about 13, and apparently, much like learning to ride a bike, it’s something your body doesn’t forget. Even still, she trained for more than a year, and at peak put in eight hours of practice a day with the film’s French choreographer (and her co-star) Benjamin Millepied, to whom she’s now engaged. She apparently lost about 20 pounds (10 kg or so) in order to prepare for the role—quite a lot considering she was already pretty skinny. Portman’s is one of the finest performances of 2010; those who would criticise it for being over-the-top Oscar-bait are, in this writer’s opinion, attacking something that isn’t really in her control—the part calls for a frank, ‘external’ transmission of feelings, a physical, almost guttural response, due to the film’s subjective construction. Similarly, Kunis’ and Cassel’s performances are at times variously shrill, blunt and candid for precisely the same reason.

ALL OF Darren Aronofsky’s films contain characters in extreme, personally-inflicted pain. In 1998’s π, his grainy début feature, the protagonist, Max, thinks there’s a formula to the machinations of the stock market that somehow incorporates mathematical theorems such as the Golden ratio. There isn’t, or at least he can’t find one; he ends up demented, and takes to his own skull with a power drill. In Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky’s adaptation of the Hubert Selby novel about drug addicts, the characters confront a depraved, harsh reality in which the only thing they can think to do outside of taking drugs is to look for more drugs to take. They spend basically the whole film roaming the streets, at all hours, looking, angrily, for a fix.

The Fountain, Aronofksy’s operatic but unsteady third film, is a piece of science fiction that features three Hugh Jackmans in three distinct eras, each separated by five centuries. The first has Conquistador Hugh, during the Spanish Inquisition, searching for the Tree of Life. The second has present-day Hugh searching for a cure to cancer, so he can save the life of his wife (Rachel Weiz). The last (and silliest) scenario sees Future Hugh floating in an orb stuck gracefully in the lotus position whilst the equivalent of a moderately impressive computer screensaver circa 1999 plays behind him. (He’s searching for inner peace—or the meaning of life, or something.) Though it’s more subdued and less studied than in π or Requiem, each of these three Hughs is in just as much pain as Max and the dope fiends—and, in at least two cases, Hugh faces immediate mortal peril. The connections between his characters’ situations, Aronofsky insists, were not intentional.

ARONOFSKY BEGAN work on Black Swan about ten years ago. He originally planned to adapt Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella “The Double”—about a government clerk who is assured that a doppelgänger has usurped his identity—into a film. The story was set in the theatre world, and was called The Understudy. After seeing “Swan Lake” performed one night, Aronofsky had a ‘eureka moment’ and decided to set the story in the ballet world—which, after a little research, he discovered was not glamorous as he supposed, but has a “nasty dungeon feel to it… [it’s] all concrete boxes with windows.” The paranoid experience of Nina, compounded by the labyrinthine breezeblock hallways of the ballet’s backstage areas, is conveyed chiefly through the cinematography, which is, at times, uncomfortably, nauseatingly close—and intentionally so. Moreover, the sound design in all the rehearsal scenes is very, very subjective—to the point where, the first time I saw the film, I thought there was someone knocking on the door to the theatre, calling out instructions.

Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky’s film school chum who shot π, Requiem and The Fountain, used a combination of strikingly grainy Super-16 stock and—for shots in small spaces and where they weren’t permitted to bring a crew, such as the subway—digital handheld cameras like the Canon EOS 7D. Dardennes-esque following shots, in concert with some swift jump-cuts, ratchet up the film’s pace and bring us even closer to Nina’s hyper-charged emotional state. The same lenses and cameras that were used on The Wrestler were employed here, bringing the two films closer together on a raw technical level. The film’s muted colour palette switches from greys and blacks backstage to pastel-pinks and whites at home—right down to the décor of Nina’s bedroom and the fluffy white scarf and pink coat she wears between home and the ballet. The LCD screen on her girly little pink flip-phone—whose ringtone changes from an ordinary trill to the oboe’s melody from the Prologue’s opening measures, a tune that also incessantly issues from the jewel-encrusted music-box in her bedroom—glows fuchsia when “MOM,” designated purposefully in all-caps, calls. (The only person who ever calls is “MOM.”)

Craig Henighan, Aronofsky’s regular sound designer, added to the film’s sense of subjectivity with a collection of ornithological effects: throughout the film, in and around the expected horror-movie screeches and shrieks, are the sounds of wings flapping, of swans ‘barking,’ and—at the ballet’s tumultuous Finale during Nina’s astounding transmogrification—a raven squawking and screaming. Tchaikovsky’s music is ever-present, pounding away in the back of Nina’s head like a migraine. (It even infects the aforementioned club scene, and the transcendent penultimate bars of the Finale are a gorgeous accompaniment to Nina’s slo-mo tumble at film’s bittersweet close.)

CLINT MANSELL, a massively talented composer whose much-celebrated score for Requiem should have won him an Oscar, takes Tchaikovsky’s ballet as a base for his score, and buttresses it with the chilling soundscape of a slasher, mixing in all manner of creepy noises. His compositions for the comparatively mundane interstitial scenes outside the Tchaikovsky, though still appropriately horrific, are limited and perfunctory; they sound like cast-offs from Thomas Newman’s score for Angels in America, if that film were maybe about zombies with AIDS, instead of just Al Pacino with AIDS.

Black Swan collapses the themes, moods and tenor of a number of films from across the horror-movie spectrum. From Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy—in particular from that series’ middle film, Repulsion—Aronofsky borrows a feeling of paranoid psychosis. He openly references Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Technicolor masterpiece The Red Shoes, the ur-ballet-psychodrama about an artist’s self-sacrifice in service (and pursuit) of their art, twice: once when Nina lifts a peep-hole flap in the stage curtain to look at the audience, and once—most obviously—in one of the film’s best scenes in which Nina is proving to Thomas that she can dance the complex pas de deux routine of the second act. Tim McDonald notes that the move performed at this point in the ballet is probably one of the most difficult in the entire repertoire; in it, he explains, “Odile is required to perform thirty-two fouettés—i.e. spinning around on the point of one foot while whipping the other foot around at knee level.”

In The Red Shoes, cinematographer Jack Cardiff was able to transmit the physical effect of this move to the audience by propping the camera on a pedestal and spinning it around, stopping briefly after each revolution to capture the blinding glow of the footlights—a move Martin Scorsese appropriated for Raging Bull. In Black Swan, Aronofsky and Libatique ape the shot, though given the preponderance of mirrors—which are everywhere in the film, and are exercised for some of its bluntest visual tropes—some post-production CGI was required to remove the camera from the shot. Another Powell-Pressburger film, Black Narcissus, might contain a preponderance of “built-up repression,” as Kenji Fujushima notes, but on the whole it doesn’t quite jibe with Aronofsky’s film as a reference point. (Fujishima’s argument for Ravel’s “La Valse” being a potential musical forebear is, to my mind, similarly unconvincing: the 12-minute choreographic poem is too swirly, too glossy and, save for some of its spin-cycle closing flourishes, nowhere near brusque enough to be a good fit.)

JUST AS Inception was a (weak) live-action remake of one of the greatest animated films of all time, the late Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, so too Black Swan is a (loose, and definitely unconscious) adaptation of Kon’s masterwork, Perfect Blue. The 1998 anime, the rights to which Aronofsky acquired so he could replicate its famous bathtub scene in Requiem, is about a girl in a pop group who decides to quit and become an actress. As reality dwindles to nothing and gives way to a torpid, wobbly mindscape, she receives threatening phone calls and is stalked by impersonators and crazed fans. There are a number of shots—from subway-window reflections to scenes in hallways and images of the protagonist’s face that come to life—which Aronofsky directly quotes. The two films’ trailers have already been conflated, just as with Showgirls, another film with overt similarities to Black Swan, and one leading to the obvious conclusion that the latter is a B-movie which just happens to have moments of true artistry. Elements of Brian de Palma’s Sisters, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, all of which are studies of women (mentally, and sometimes physically) conjoined, persist at the margins here, but are never openly exploited.

Though she’s no ‘Brundlefly,’ Nina’s Cronenbergian transformation comes straight out of The Fly, while backstage dramas like All About Eve—and arguably bits of Robert Altman’s massively flawed and seriously miscast (yet palatable) 2003 film The Company—inform some of the film’s construction, particularly some of the rehearsal scenes. The unconscious connections with Suspiria, Dario Argento’s supernatural ballet-thriller, are perhaps not immediately obvious: that film’s characters were intended to be portrayed by children (or at least preadolescents)—hence the (initially grating) childlike dialogue. For another, the film’s astoundingly bold colour palette bleeds into Black Swan during the ballet sequences—perhaps Thomas (or his set designer) is a giallo fan? In an extensive interview with American Cinematographer, Libatique mentions that Kieślowski’s Trzy kolory (“Three Colours”) trilogy and a Swedish documentary about ballet, Dansaren, were also used as reference points.

THAT ARONOFSKY’S film can be read as camp is a conversation for another post—and one that is necessarily spoilerific—but suffice it to say that the evidence in favour is strong, particularly inasmuch as Aronofsky has been very surprised at the film’s reception (namely that people are laughing). Susan Sontag, in her “Notes on Camp,” puts forward the notion that “Pure Camp” is always naïve—that is, as Dennis Lim points out, it is unintentional. Lim resigns the film to the annals of ‘camp qua camp,’ but I think there’s more to it than that. Aronofsky didn’t set out to make a film that would generate a humorous reaction—thus the film meets at least one criterion for being considered camp—but he knew he wasn’t making a straightforward A-grade art-house picture. Naturalistic lighting and a semblance of ‘realism’ would, as some have mooted, work against a camp reading if they didn’t quickly make way for blood and other phantasmatic bodily explorations. Steven Shaviro’s positioning of the film’s “kitsch aestheticism” contra a sort of “high-minded” and “self-congratulatory” elitism—especially one with an eye to comparisons with Gaspar Noé’s tour de force, last year’s Enter the Void—is fascinating: instead of joining others in being unable to revel in Black Swan as “glamorous trash,” he is entertained by its commitment to “cinematic maximalism.”

Some of its dialogue is so obtuse it feels like parody, but I think that’s the point. When Thomas tells Nina “The only person standing in the way is you,” & “The real work will be your metamorphosis into her evil twin,” I think you’re meant to laugh, not at how “bad” the line is, but at how obvious it is. In the hope that it might loosen her up, he tells her to go home and masturbate: “Live a little,” he says—a line mirrored later in the film. In context, this being a B-movie, the lines work. Similarly, Lily seems to lack a self-censorial barrier between her brain and her mouth: she just says what’s on her (and our) mind. (One line in particular—“Was I good?”—will likely have you in hysterics.) The film courses through several genres in short order, beginning as a compelling melodrama, moving into a sex-mad frenetic middle section, and ending, gloriously, in full flight. That Aronofsky doesn’t feign to reveal what is true and what is imagined at any given juncture is where the fun lies.

Cross-posted at The Corner.

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One thought on “Good Girl Gone Bad: Black Swan

  1. Brilliant. I particularly appreciated the note regarding “an artist’s self-sacrifice in service (and pursuit) of their art”

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