Black Swan (2010)

I planned on leading with a review of a favorite restaurant or favorite film, and while this blog will be replete with retroactive opinions, I haven’t been to many old food spots lately. Nor have I seen many old films.

What I did see was Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Black Swan. All I have to say is: What. The. Fuck.

**Typical Spoilers Below**

There is a psychological brilliance to this film, created by Natalie Portman’s schizophrenic performance and Aranofsky’s claustrophobic photography. And I’m not talking about a dramatic, Hitchcock feeling. Think Requiem For a Dream (also Aranofsky) meets The Shining.

By the end of the movie, a few things are clear:

  1. The story itself is an analogue of the ballet.
  2. It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not.

The two go hand-in-hand and drive the film forward. Nina begins the story as the White Swan. She is sheltered and childlike. Her room is full of pink fluffy bunnies. Her mother tucks her in every night. She literally rides the subways of New York in snowy white outfits. She is mechanically meticulous, devoting seemingly every waking hour to her practice, and even dreaming about it.

She is also wound tighter than a top. OCD and anorexia nervosa are plausible diagnoses. Something is very off here. The only interaction she really has is with her mother. Now think Norman Bates.

The Mother, brilliantly played by Barbara Hershey, is nothing short of oppressive, micromanaging Nina’s life since God Knows When. Everything seems innocent enough until Nina turns down a piece of congratulatory cake, fearing weight gain, only to see Mom absolutely lose it and threaten to throw out the entire cake. Where did that come from? Mom even falls asleep in a chair next to Nina’s bed. She has a room full of paintings of Nina.

Dr. Phil isn’t needed here, Mister Pill is.

In Tchaikovsky’s original ballet, Odette is under the spell of an evil sorcerer. “Sorceress” might be a more befitting adjective in this rendition. Only this woman’s magical power seems to be an uncanny ability to keep her daughter in a 12-year old’s ballet bubble.

Everything seems status quo with Nina until she shows a hint of darkness when she bites her director’s lip during a surprise kiss. And then the transformation into the Black Swan begins. Nina originally struggles to break free from her rigid devotion. She’s all Technique when she needs a lot of Method. Lily (Mila Kunis) presumably helps her unwind and let herself go – the usual sex, drugs and violence triumvirate – but that’s precisely when the linearity of the story breaks down.

While the film is certainly an artistic and creative presentation of Swan Lake – which Nina is starring in, by the way (how’s that for a babushka doll?) – it’s told in a manner that pushes the edges of psychedelic horror. We see the wrong face on many people, and it’s always Lily’s face. Why? Is she self-conscious about her ascension into the spotlight? Was it guilt that produced a face-stabbing incident in her mind? Does she desire a way to break free from her mother? From herself? Perhaps a combination of all of the above. By the end of the movie, Nina literally transforms into a Swan, but it is extremely dark, and at times, leg-cracking and skin-peeling-gruesome.

But what in the world is real in this story? What is supposed to be real? It is apparent, probably thanks to Mom, that Nina is certifiably insane. She keeps scratching her back. Or so we think. If she’s losing herself and morphing into the Black Swan, how much of it is in her mind? Or, as I suspect, is it all just a folk tale?

I don’t think the particulars are important here. That’s not the point of the movie. At the same time, the film borders on being so dark and disorienting that I wonder if a second viewing is palpable, save for the lip-biting lesbian scene. I’m not even sure whether I’d say I liked it. It was certainly good, well made and full of artistic brilliance. Kunis is surprisingly good. Portman’s performance is spectacular. Aranofsk’y direction amplifies the mood.

I’m sure a second viewing would illuminate such details. I’m sure there would be notes in the acting and directing that delve deeper into the psychological process at work here. I’m just not sure I’ll ever get around to it.

3 out of 4 paws

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