Black Swan

Thursday, March 03, 2011

One film immediately sprang to mind while I was watching Black Swan: The Piano Teacher. Both films are about performers trapped in claustrophobic relationships with their mother. Both films are about self-destruction. And both films are about the sacrifices people make for their art, often to the detriment of their well-being.

Another film that sprang to mind was Darren Aronofsky’s previous movie The Wrestler. One of the themes of that film was the way the way the main character destroyed his body for the enjoyment of others. The more he performed, the more he gave to the audience, the less he had for himself. And so it is with Black Swan. Here’s a woman who, like Mickey Rourke’s wrestler, is slowly destroying her body and her soul for other people’s entertainment and amusement.

One of the main bones of contention when I discussed Black Swan with my wife was our differing responses to the mother/daughter relationship portrayed in the film. I sensed a very subtle sexual element. My wife didn’t see it at all.

It’s by no means overt, but there are a couple of hints that there’s some sexual abuse going on in this claustrophobic, co-dependant relationship. There’s one scene where the mother, happy that her daughter Nina (Portman) got the main part in ‘Swan Lake’, gives her a cake. She then puts some of the cream on her finger and insists that her daughter lick it. The aggression is such that you know that she’s not going to take no for an answer. And then there’s another moment when the mother just invites herself into her daughter’s bedroom, and like there’s nothing wrong with this at all, like it’s the most natural thing in the world, says that she’s going to spend the night with her. It’s under the pretext of getting her daughter up early the next morning but this just seems like an excuse – the mother just wants any excuse to invade her daughter’s personal space.

Yes these aren’t overt signs of sexual abuse, but even if nothing physical has ever taken place, there’s at least psycho-sexual abuse going on here. The mother is needy, clingy and demanding, and as such she has ensured that her daughter lives in a state of arrested development. The daughter’s room looks like it belongs to a twelve-year-old. There’s pink everywhere and there are lots of childish knick-knacks. The mother has wrapped her baby up in cotton wool and as such the daughter is ill-prepared to deal with the harsh realities of real life.

But going back to the sexual undertones in the mother/daughter relationship, there’s a scene where Nina masturbates in her room. Before this, the sleazy ballet director that cast the daughter in the lead role in ‘Swan Lake’ encourages her to masturbate so that she can loosen up. He also asks her if she’s a virgin. She says that she isn’t but the true nature of her previous sexual encounters is never explained. They certainly didn’t seem like happy liaisons. Could they possibly have been with her mother? Is this why she’s so uptight? And then when the daughter finally gives in to desire, her wanking session is interrupted when she sees that her mother is sleeping in the corner of her room. The daughter’s sexual identity seems to be strongly tied to her mother – she can’t free herself from her mum’s suffocating grasp.

And it’s this search for liberation that is the main thrust of the film. Portman’s character is told time and time again that her dancing is technically perfect. However, in order to play the lead in ‘Swan Lake’, she must play both the White Swan and the Black Swan. And in order to play the Black Swan she must embrace her dark side: she must lose some of her inhibitions and give in to her emotions.

Needless to say, this is more difficult for Nina than you might imagine. All her life she’s been building a wall. She’s been resisting her emotions – keeping them at bay. And her desire to become a ballerina is a desire to achieve the perfection she can’t obtain in her real life. Therefore it’s always going to be difficult for her to perform with reckless abandon.

However, Portman’s character definitely has demons. The opening sequence superbly illustrates this as we see her dancing with the demon from Swan Lake. Nina is a troubled soul, desperately tying to keep a grip.

As Nina gets closer to the opening night, so she becomes more and more unhinged. There are some excellent visual touches that display her paranoia. One of my favourites was the shot where her reflection turns to look at her as she looks away. The direction is very casual and doesn’t draw attention to itself, but it’s rather beautiful and unsettling.

There are also some nice visual flourishes when Nina goes to a nightclub. As she dances under some strobe lights we briefly get flashes of the Black Swan. She’s finally embracing the darkness inside her.

Nina even goes so far as to take Lily, a rival dancer, home and have sex with her. But as we later find out, this is pure fantasy. Nina is beginning to unravel – her perceptions are becoming skewed.

The shit hits the fan when Nina finds Lily in her dressing room, dressed as the Black Swan and apparently ready to take her part. A struggle ensues and Lily turns into Nina. Nina then ends up stabbing and killing her duplicate. The passion, the energy and the emotion that she previously lacked comes out like a volcano – she’s ready to be the Black Swan.

The final performance is quite breathtaking and the sequence where she actually performs as the Black Swan is a fantastic piece of cinema. It’s wild and it’s loose, and there’s a magnificent visual flourish as Portman grows black feathers and wings burst out of her back. All of the time she’s been seeking perfection in her dancing and now she finally has it. She has everyone at her feet – the audience, her fellow performers and even the ballet director; they’re all in her thrall.

However, when Nina gets back to the dressing room she discovers that she didn’t stab her competitor at all – she stabbed herself and is bleeding to death. Somehow Nina manages to continue and gives it her all in the final act. As the White Swan lays there dying (and as she herself lays there dying), she says that she was perfect. Some performers say that they have to kill themselves for their audience. Well, Nina literally does that. And she also ends up being an echo of the character she portrays. She starts off innocent, looking for the freedom that a perfect performance will bring. But then she’s tricked by her demons and ends up destroying herself. But through this destruction she finally finds liberation – finally achieving perfection and finally receiving recognition from her peers and her audience, she can give up the ghost, knowing that nothing will ever supplant this moment.

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