(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Natalie Portman delivers “the performance of her career” (Vanity Fair) as Nina, a stunningly talented but dangerously unstable ballerina on the verge of stardom. Pushed to the breaking point by her driven artistic director (Vincent Cassel) and the threat posed by a seductive rival dancer (Mila Kunis), Nina’s tenuous grip on reality starts to slip away- plunging her into a waking nightmare.
– From DVD Production Notes
It’s been strange, but over the past few months a lyric from a Tori Amos song keeps surfacing in my thoughts: “Doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces.” There are many reasons for this- I won’t go into them here- but when it comes to Black Swan nothing could sum it up better. The human psyche is as labyrinthine as it is limited, and Nina’s psyche is fascinating because her life is so suffocatingly small. We watch her story unfold and her sanity crumble from the inside looking out. The film never departs from her fragile, insecure point of view.
Personally, there has always been an air of tragedy concerning the ballerinas I’ve seen on film. My grandmother’s favorite film was The Red Shoes (1948), which I saw as a little girl (and probably shouldn’t have). Other films expanded that fragility into acts of violence, like the ritualistic slaughter in Suspiria (1977) or Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine beating the shit out of each other in The Turning Point (1977). As you can surmise Black Swan is the ballet film that has made the biggest impression on me. It articulates anxiety and ambition in a way that I fully understand, down to Thomas Leroy (Cassel) calling Nina out in the middle of her breakdown: “Stop being so fucking weak!”
In the hours after seeing it I felt just as jittery and unstable as Nina did. I had to cook a meal but couldn’t handle using knives. It’s rare of a film to linger with me in such a visceral way, but considering director Darren Aronofsky’s previous work it makes perfect sense. While researching Requiem For A Dream I came across an interview in which he talked about “inner reality” on film, the ability to visually shift an audience’s focus from the external to what is happening inside of a person. From the beginning of his career it has been his calling card, and here he executes it to perfection. Whether you like it or not, you exist in Nina’s mind for a few hours.
Watching Swan again was like revisiting a puzzle box that is unsolvable. All I gathered were more details I had missed but left with the same unanswered questions. Like I said, Nina’s life is small. She splits her time between the dance studio and an apartment she shares with her mother (Barbara Hershey). It’s heavily implied she has an eating disorder, issues with self-harm and has been inhibited from growing up or being independent in any way, shape or form. As a result she denies herself everything, wanting to stay true to an ideal she aspired to as a little girl.
Her mother has kept her that way and Nina has submitted. Throughout the film there is evidence that their relationship is emotionally abusive. Her mother doesn’t respect her boundaries. She guilt trips her. There are even hints at being able to physically dominate her to get her way. Nina isn’t just her daughter, but an extension of herself she is obsessed with.
Likewise Nina submits to the rigors of dancing, which are shown in unflinching, sometimes graphic detail- jammed ankles, cracked toenails and all. Her company is overseen by Leroy, who Cassel modeled on dancing legend George Balanchine and described him as “a control freak, a true artist using sexuality to direct his dancers.” This becomes complicated for Nina, who wants to be a remarkable dancer as much as she wants to please him.
When presented with an opportunity to play the dual role in his Swan Lake, the tension between the two of them quickly becomes physical. It doesn’t matter how demure or timid Nina is. Leroy demands that she loosen herself up in order to play the “black swan,” the sensual counterpart to the “white swan” she embodies so well. “Go home and touch yourself,” he orders, and Nina follows through. The only problem is her mother doesn’t plan on leaving her bedside.
Nina’s sexuality becomes the crux of Swan, particularly the absence of it until she implodes. In her quest to be perfect her focus on dancing and placating her mother has made everything else fall by the wayside. It could be said that her competitiveness is what sets her off, as Leroy singles out a new dancer in the troupe, Lily (Kunis). “Watch the way she moves,” he tells Nina. “Imprecise, but sensual. She’s not faking it. Pay attention.”
Lily makes overtures of friendship toward Nina, which complicates things even more. Nina definitely doesn’t trust her, but is drawn to her all the same. It could be because Lily truly has what Nina lacks. It could be because Lily embodies qualities Nina hasn’t been able to access and represses. Or, most likely, it could be because Nina is both attracted and repulsed to Lily because they are one and the same. There are physical similarities between the two of them and they seem interchangeable to someone of Leroy’s reputation. After all, he has blithely dismissed his former protege Beth (Winona Ryder) and is searching for fresh blood.
When the two of them finally spend some downtime together, things spiral out of control. It’s quite possible Lily is trying to sabotage Nina’s shot at the role, but it’s unclear how much of their evening is even real by the time it’s over. Nina is slipped some ecstasy and her paranoid visions begin to take over, culminating with her and Lily having sex in her bedroom after leaving a nightclub.
By then, this disintegrating reality has been a long time coming. If you’re watching closely, Swan has been subtly illustrating that things are never quite right. We are seeing things the way Nina does, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re accurate or real. For example, there are several instances where the audience is led to believe they are seeing Kunis onscreen when it’s actually Portman. There are also digital distortions that can easily be missed: reflections, shadows and subliminal imagery. With time they become more obvious and sinister. Nina is realizing them and the audience is too. Something within her has been woken up and is fighting for control.
It’s these visual conflicts that set Black Swan apart from the typical “breakdown” film. As a viewer you are plunged into a world where you can only interpret things as Nina sees them. It’s the only perspective you have, and what’s happening to her is an terrifying all-or-nothing situation, which is what mental illness does to a person. From the outside there appears to be solutions, or at least the possibility of intervention. The problem is Nina doesn’t see those possibilities.
Her predicament reminded me of a story I read about several years ago: a model spiraled into anorexia and bulimia because she was turned down for some photo shoots and runway work. When she started seeing a psychiatrist he told her, “All that happened is you didn’t fit into some dresses.” That sentence was enough to turn her around, but her state of mind hadn’t allowed her to see things that way.
In Nina’s case things are even worse. She isn’t only isolated by her mental state, but propelled to see her work through to the end, no matter the cost. What she accomplishes is an astonishing feat, and a reminder of what committed artists can accomplish while tearing themselves apart.
That brings me back to that Tori Amos line, and the precise moment Nina realizes what is happening to her. She realizes there is only one way out of her predicament and her breakdown has already decided it for her. Her fate is entangled with the White Swan’s final act, and she accepts this with sadness, fear and, eventually, acceptance.
With such high stakes and sexual impropriety Black Swan garnered controversy among the dancing community for inaccurately portraying ballet dancers. Still, as irritating it might be to professionals (and I can’t blame them), I don’t think ballet is the focus of the film. It’s simply the environment for an extreme situation. Like Aronofsky’s previous film, The Wrestler, it’s a parable for someone surrendering themselves to their art. Completely. Disastrously so.
A third act exchange between Nina and Beth articulates this obsession, in which Nina visits Beth to return items she stole from her dressing room. “I just wanted to be perfect like you,” Nina explains tearfully. Beth, now wheelchair-bound, replies, “I’m not perfect. I’m nothing.”
Both women have reached a self-destructive impasse because of their art, which is what makes the scene so important. It’s also the only open window looking out on what another character is feeling. What is often neglected when discussing Swan are the narratives that exists alongside Nina’s and beyond the ending of the film. The effects are widespread. Beth will never dance again and could possibly be disfigured and hospitalized permanently (depending on how you interpret things). Leroy’s career is most likely irreversibly damaged or over, with Beth’s suicide attempt and Nina’s demise leaving blood on his hands. Likewise, Lily will always be regarded with suspicion since she was the last one to visit Nina’s dressing room. Lastly, Nina’s mother will have to take a long walk home… alone. I can only imagine what a nightmare her life will become.
On the other hand, none of these things happen to Nina. In spite of everything she has finally found what she was looking for: artistic ecstasy. For the first time we see her calm and completed. Her suffering is over. She has done what she wanted.
Watching Black Swan is astonishing for this very reason. People who are passionate have a drive that can be beyond understanding, pushing them further or harder than others. This wasn’t expected of Nina but she proved everyone wrong despite setbacks, sabotage and the personal agony she experienced. She even gets the last word: “I was perfect.”
The finale brings to mind another lyric coming from an entirely different world. In Jay-Z’s “On To The Next One” he notes you “can’t be scared to fail in the search of perfection.” Nina succumbs to that fear then kills it, and as chilling as the act might be, there is comfort in watching that fear fade into the light. It doesn’t matter anymore. No matter how much scandal and ruin will follow, a legend has been born.