Words On Film: Black Swan

*Note: This edition of Words On Film will delve into the nuances, design and plot of the film Black Swan. If you have not yet seen the film, this is your first and last official spoiler warning. Do not read this if unless you have already seen the film or have no intention to see it. (And if you have no intention to see it, reorder your intentions, because the film is both a great narrative work and a visceral experience that no one should deny themselves.)

With that out of the way, I should note that part of me wishes I would have written this last night. I saw Black Swan yesterday afternoon at Denver's Mayan Theater and the first note I have is that I exited that show with a combined feeling of dread, exhilaration and agitation. The movie left me in a strange place. Black Swan left me feeling drained, emotionally and mentally. The world looked like a different place after I saw it. It is a film that I will discuss and summarize and dig into below, but one that can only properly be experienced by viewing it. And I think that's the best compliment I can give the cast and director. Natalie Portman is insanely exceptional in her role as Nina. Mila Kunis is dangerous, seductive and sweet as Lily. And Vincent Cassel is ideal as ballet director and sex symbol Thomas. To say nothing of Darren Aronofsky's perfect shot composition and direction.

Black Swan is 108 minutes of pure, body-shaking tension. It is a movie about perfection, dichotomy, reflection, obsession and the thin line between reality and fiction. It's also a film about passion, what it means to live life fully, and how important it is to strike a balance between reservation and pleasure. And there are issues of sexuality, identity, self-esteem, class and society that permeate the film too. And as brisk and enjoyable as the film is, it manages to cram an insane amount of subtext into its plot, which seems to be simply about a girl wanting the lead role in a ballet, but which turns out to be a story that both parallels and transcends the Swan Lake ballet in question. Nina Sayers has to transform herself completely just to find a single moment of achievement and happiness. And the transformation ends her.

Nina's life, we discover early on, is driven by an obsession to attain perfection. She wants ONLY to obtain the lead role of the Swan Queen, but she cannot effortlessly dance the passionate role of the Black Swan as well as she does the innocent role of the White Swan. She practices endlessly with no regard for her body and seems unable to enjoy much of anything. Portman's expressions throughout the film are ones of worry, sadness and embarrassment, but there's never a moment where seems at ease. Nina wants perfection, hell she wants Perfection, but she doesn't ever really know what it is. She assumes that it means joyless effort and reservation, but that's exactly the thing that prevents her from reaching what she wants. Her mother is a key source, a woman who gave up her ballet career to have Nina, and who hovers around Nina at every turn. Each scene in the Sayers' apartment is horrifyingly tense, as Nina repeatedly tries to find greater privacy and is thwarted by her mother at every turn. Nina is unable to gain privacy anywhere in her life. Throughout the film she never escapes observation. If her mother is not calling for her, watching her sleep or gazing at her bitterly, Nina is in front of her ballet company, or standing in front of a large crowd, or looking at herself in the mirror. She lives a life of constant, unrelenting judgment.

That judgment spurs Nina's psychosis. It's an insane amount of pressure to begin with. And thematically, mirrors are everywhere all the time. It's not just the studio, or the dressing room, or her bedroom, or the bathroom, it's every pane of glass that is lit in front and not in back. And then there's Lily, who Nina sees at first in a reflection on a subway train, and then in the mirror. Aronofsky presents them as opposites instantly. They are opposites in complexion and hair color. Nina wears white while Lily wears black. And Nina notices this, even if she doesn't know she does. We are instantly led to believe that Lily is sinister. And we have no reason not to believe it.

Aronofsky enhances Nina's dread further by employing a world that exists almost entirely in black and white. The sets are dark, spare and unrelenting. And everywhere Nina is confronted with confrontation. It is a world without happiness and thick with dichotomy. This world is oppressive to watch. And only the pink of Nina's bedroom shows a patch of brightness. So when Nina receives the opportunity to play the Swan Queen, she is primed for the only push she needs to allow her world of judgment to overtake her. The simple advice, given by Thomas, the ballet's director to lose herself, Nina starts to, but not in the way the advice intended. Because for a person who has predicated her life on perfection and one who feels infinitely judged, losing control is a curse. Even if it's only to gain and understand passion.

So, if Black Swan is a study of perfection, losing control and obsession, what do we make of the parts of the film walk that fine and unintelligible line between reality and fiction? Nina's progressing psychotic breaks, of which there are many, all tie into her desire to become something she doesn't believe she can be, the sexual, free person that her mother won't allow her to be and that she refuses to embrace. Her habit of scratching herself, and the visceral mutilation of her body through various projections (through Lily and through Winona Rider's Beth) seems to boil down to her own fear that she will never be that which she admires. She sees every facet of imperfection within herself as a curse. And even when the curse represents the full dark side-loving part of her personality, she wants to strip it all away. She wants to dig into the core of herself, even though that very action injures her and ultimately destroys her.

The scene in the club, when Lily's urging finally allows her to let go of her staid schedule leads to a complete pendulum swing in Nina's personality. She cannot be both good and bad (in the colloquial sense) so she breaks free of truth and reality completely. And in the dancing scene, where Aronofsky employs red lights with hints of green and Nina and Lily blend together, crossing faces and dancing as each others mirrors enhances Nina's need to be one thing or another, but not both. That hits a head (pun entirely intended) when Nina and Lily share a sexual moment. And it becomes even more important when we learn that Lily's freeing of Nina leads Nina to what is her first auto-erotic event.

But, with lust, Nina finds jealousy (as represented in the hints of green light during the club dancing sequence) that guides her toward her final downfall. The jealousy makes her believe that Lily is her rival, the Black Swan to her White Swan, in which the ballet (and to some extent Thomas) is the prince. Nina has her final climactic sequence of violent hallucinations, believing she sees Thomas and Lily having sex (which may well have happened, it's nearly impossible to tell) and in Nina's hallucination of the black feathers emerging from the goose bumps on the scratches on her shoulder. There, in that moment, when her legs buckle back and she falls and hits her head, she has lost herself. She is her part. But not in the way we are accustom because there is no HER left. And my theory is, that really, metaphorically, she was dead right then.

And then it's the night of the performance. Nina prepares for the first appearance of the White Swan, and dances, but she is imprecise and falls (the circumstance of the fall is veiled in her unreliable point of view). And Nina in that moment is so shattered by her imperfection that she hallucinates Lily's appearance to cuckold her role, to take what she loves from her, as well as to cup the balls of her ballet-prince. In that fit, she kills Lily, really killing the separate (emphasis on separate) dark side of herself. And in so doing, she finally absorbs that dark side. But to become whole she has also killed herself, embraced her frailty, her beauty and her imperfection (She is human, prick her and she bleeds). And whether the rush of adrenaline fuels her final performance and her ultimate embracing of the Black Swan or if it is merely that she believes herself to have dealt the final death blow to her fears and insecurities doesn't matter. She earns her moment of perfection by embracing the imperfect.

The final moment is something I wasn't sure about at first. I thought it was left ambiguous when I left the theater. I had hope that there was some chance Nina could get help. But I knew, too, that the parallels planted within the script with the real Swan Lake would not be complete if she lived. It was in conversation with my friend Jon that he pointed out that she had definitely died, and it dawned on me that he was right. Aronofsky makes the conscious choice to fade the screen to white for the credits. White is the White Swan, who dies. White is the delicate, fearful, doting side of Nina, that had already died. And white is the eyes overwhelmed with light, a final firing of synapses that make darkness into glow. There's a lot to be said for dream states and what of the story is real. What Nina really experienced, what she really did, remains somewhat mysterious. But her final belief that she attained perfection is key. Death is her perfection. It's a perfect state of completion. An end to chaos in rest.

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