Monday, 27 December 2010
Black Swan Ruffled My Feathers
Black Swan tells the disturbing tale of Nina (Natalie Portman), a beautiful, talented but also reserved and immature ballerina who’s quickly reaching the age when the chance to become a Principal Dancer and a major star is starting to slip away from her. However her Ballet Company’s director (the great Vincent Cassel) sees something in Nina and gives her the lead in his upcoming production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But this means Nina playing two distinct characters – the sweet, innocent, virginal Odette, a princess cursed by a sorcerer to live as a swan, and Odile, said sorcerers dark, duplicitous, passionate daughter who tricks Odette’s Prince in to betraying his one true love. And while Nina has no problem portraying the innocent, fragile Odette, she finds it impossible to capture the dark inner passion of Odile, to allow herself to become the Black Swan. Nina’s major problem is that despite her age (28) she is still effectively a little girl. She’s immature, not yet having become a woman with the experiences of life and of the world that most have gained by that age. The main experiences here being of sex and passion. Nina lives with her mother who has effectively isolated her from life, from growing up and maturing. She smothers Nina, giving her no privacy at home, treating her as if she were still 8 years old. But as Nina starts pushing herself to embrace what being the Black Swan means by exploring her own inner passions, by letting herself go, weird and scary things start to happen. She starts seeing physical transformations in herself – scratches and marks appearing on her body. And then, later on, feathers breaking through her skin and reflections of herself taking on a life of their own. At the same time she is also becoming more and more convinced that the new addition to the company, the flirtatious Lily (Mila Kunis), is out to get her. That she’s looking to replace her, just as Nina has unwittingly done to the now broken figure of the previous Lead Dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder).
Hmm…all sounds a bit odd and freaky I hear you say. Yep, that it is. But in the very best way possible.
I reckon that with Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky, director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler, has done his best work to date. This is utterly brilliant stuff. It’s an exquisite, disturbing, intelligent and artful film. I especially love how he films the dancing with energetic close in cameras following the dancers as they move. And then there's his fantastic time and location transitions while tracking Nina’s face or following the back of her head. Everything we see is stylised and intimate with the entire story being shown from Nina’s perspective. It is the self-view of a fragile, immature, isolated, frightened, yet deeply committed and ambitious girl. All of the nightmarish imagery we see is through her eyes. It is how she sees others and herself – the injuries, the blood, the grotesquely beautiful transformations. With Black Swan, Aronofsky pretends to be ambiguous. Is this all actually happening for real, or is it all purely in Nina’s head? The truth is, though, that Black Swan really isn't ambiguous at all. Not if you’re a reasonably smart human being who can see at least some of what this film is really all about.
So, having now set myself up for a fall, here’s what I think Black Swan is all about.
*WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD*
I see Black Swan as an allegory for the female journey to full-on womanhood with all the physical and emotional issues, problems and insecurities that journey entails - not to mention the various (and not always helpful) male and female attitudes and peer pressures. It’s also about what roles/personas girls might adopt throughout that journey, or might be forced upon them as they mature. Some of those roles/personas are shown in the characters of Nina, the immature, innocent child looking to grow up; Lily, the sexually confident and worldly young woman; Beth, the spurned older woman who is feeling unattractive, unwanted and redundant. And then there’s Nina’s mother, who is just that – the ‘mother’, the only thing that defines her. These female personas are all potential aspects of Nina’s own character. And she fears them. But she must confront them throughout the film so as to banish her fear and take control, to try and become the ‘perfect’ woman and deliver the ‘perfect’ performance as both Odette and Odile. And what better backdrop to this artistic female allegory than that of ballet, a world built upon female competition, continual striving for physical perfection, delicate beauty and fleeting youth. The world of ballet is a world full of women who’s ability to perform is in large part down to their age and the intense physical sacrifice, pain and punishment their art demands of them. It is a world where they have to become something that others determine and to continually adopt roles and personas. It is a world where there is always a younger, hungrier version snapping at the heels and where obsolescence is something that happens quickly and is especially cruel.
Specifically, though, Black Swan is about immature Nina's breakdown - or break through if you will.
For it is only by taking on the dual role of Odette and Odile (The White and Black Swan) that she finally forces herself to make the transformation in to a fully sexually mature woman. And maturing sexually is key here - complete with seduction, arousal, gay fantasies and masturbation. Indeed, the final shot of Nina dressed in virginal white and lying flat on her back in a dreamily satisfied state with blood on her lower body is a blatant allegorical image of the final transformation in to being a woman. The film shows us that this process of maturing sexually and emotionally, of growing up and dealing with all the trials and tribulations of becoming someone else, becoming someone more, is often painful and deeply troubling. These are age-old themes that have been told and retold throughout time in various folk tales and in classic and popular fiction. From my own pop culture bias the entire second season of Buffy is pretty much about the same thing – a young woman’s sexual awakening and painful transformation in to womanhood. As a film, Black Swan makes for a fine companion piece to Neil Jordan’s lush and dreamlike The Company of Wolves and John Fawcett’s excellent Ginger Snaps, being that they all share the same main theme.
Anyway, that’s what I reckon. But I could very well be wrong.
Whew! Almost done. But I can’t finish without a major shout out to Natalie Portman.
Unfortunately the flat acting of the Star Wars prequels along with various other stuff she’s done over recent years had lulled me in to thinking that Natalie as an actress was actually nothing that special. As far as I was concerned her stunning turn in Leon (aka The Professional) when she was only 12 was by far her best work.
Yes, the entire Black Swan cast are great (yay for Ksenia Solo). But make no mistake this is Natalie’s film all the way. And she is quite astonishing. She captures perfectly the frailty and immaturity of Nina as well as her internal yearning to become what she needs to become. But there is also an intense fear beneath everything that she does - fear of failure, of letting go, of growing up, of becoming like Beth, or her mother. And when Nina eventually starts freaking out, when she is struggling with the emerging Black Swan, Natalie is ethereally frightening with her dramatic weight loss, wide-eyed paranoia, and violent outbursts. Purely on a physical level she is incredible, being totally convincing as an experienced ballerina, a job that requires huge physical stamina, ability and precision. The dancing Natalie does is beautiful as is all of the dancing on show. I don’t know that much about ballet, although I do have an appreciation for it, but I do know that it is enormously hard work that takes years of dedicated and painful practice, making what Natalie achieves here all the more impressive. If she doesn’t at least get Oscar nominated then the world has gone truly insane.
In closing, Black Swan is an excellent film and one of the very best of the year. It requires its audience to think about theme and allegory and emotion rather than to simply follow a plot. Most will consider it an art house film, some a horror film, some a psychological drama. And Black Swan is partly all of that. And more. It is a weird, disturbing, yet also beautiful and poetic film that should under no circumstances be missed. Ms Portman, I’m sorry I ever doubted you. 5+ (out of 5)