Monday, October 10, 2011

Black Swan

By s. Monday, October 10, 2011 , , , , , , , ,
(108 min, 2010)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writers: Mark Heyman (screenplay), Andres Heinz (screenplay)
Stars: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel

Demons laugh within.

“As I lie here and stare
The fabric starts to tear
It's far beyond repair
And I don't really care
As far as I have gone
I knew what side I'm on
But now I'm not so sure
The line begins to blur”

- Nine Inch Nails, “The Line Begins to Blur”

In my many years of being a movie fan I have never waited that eagerly for a movie. Having read both versions of the script I was sure that this idea can't fail, especially in the hands of Darren Aronofsky, who has never made a bad film. The movie mixes many fantastic films within itself, but the core of it and the reason why it's Aronofsky's best film is that apart form fascinating characters the story takes us deep into the protagonist's state of mind. We travel down the rabbit hole of insanity along with Nina, we are scared, happy and exhilarated when she is and we can't never guess what will happen next.
The movie follows the story of extremely ambitious and dedicated ballet dancer Nina Seyers (Natalie Portman in a performance sure to win Oscar). Nina is very hard working, unfortunately she lacks true talent and passion. She lives in apartment with her overprotective mother, former ballerina (Barbara Hershey). After persuading the director of the new version of “Swan Lake” Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) Nina surprisingly gets the lead role of Swan Queen. The role consists of playing both shy and fearful White Swan (which is essentially the personality of Nina) and sexual and malicious Black Swan (which Nina has no idea how to dance). As Nina struggles with her role, new dancer, free spirited Lily (Mila Kunis) appears in the group and seems to be perfect for the role of Black Swan. To make matters worse, the ballerina of great fame, Beth, retires and blames Nina for her downfall...

There is so much drama going on in this story, it would be sufficient for few separate movies. The core of this film lies in the rivalry and physical similarity between Nina and Lily. Nina, most likely a virgin is a good girl – she lives with her mother, I suspect because there is no reason for her to move out. Her entire life is her dancing. There is a strong possibility she became a ballet dancer because her mother wanted her to, but regardless of the reason, this is her life now and her dancing and success are the only things that matter to her. Nina is very much like an innocent child, although being in her late twenties – her room is pink, it's filled with stuffed animals, her mother tucks her in every evening and turns on music box with a ballerina's figurine turning around to the theme of “Swan Lake”, sounding like a creepy lullaby. Nina is working way too hard – her body is ruined, she has eating disorder, she is freakishly skinny, her nails break and she has a nervous tick – she unconsciously scratches her back till it bleeds.

Lily takes everything she can from life – she has fun, she's independent, sexual, interesting and relaxed. She drinks, smokes, uses drugs, has casual sex. She's the exact opposite of Nina – her dancing is just one of the aspects of her life. Nina deeply believes that Lily is out there to steal her role – all he needs to come up with this idea is to see a fleeting glimpse Thomas gives Lily when he is disappointed with Nina's dancing as Black Swan. Nina, from now on, believes Lily is out there to sabotage her and the movie does great job into making us believe that's the case. By the of the film, we will know the truth – Lily only wanted to help Nina and Nina misinterpreted her actions, fueled by fascination with Lily her mind created truly evil version of the girl, who in reality could have help Nina and get her out of the claws of madness.
It's brilliant that the roles are played by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, who not only look very alike, but have almost the same voices and laughter. It's particularly interesting, because as the title card appears we hear faint flutter of swan's wings and giggle of a woman, sounding evil and triumphant. We can't be sure whether it's Lily, or the evil side of Nina. But that is actually something which can be interpreted in a very interesting way – I think that the simply story of madness is one way to look at the movie. The other possibility is that “Black Swan” is the story of....possession.

From the very beginning of the movie, evil is laughing at Nina. It's toying with her, not for a reason – for pure fun. Every time Nina's life gets a little bit edgier and fills with passion we hear the flutter and the giggle – the Swan, the evil, is closer to emerge. The laughter is triumphant, because it knows the victory is sure. Nina is way too weak, mentally unstable and fragile to overcome her visions, hallucinations and fears. The Swan makes Nina discover her sexuality, makes her violent, makes her cold. The first time we hear it in the actual movie is when Leroy kisses her, awaking the woman inside of her. And that's when it all begins. The Swan wins when Nina thinks she committed murder, when Nina's eyes are red on stage and then she is walking around, she is in delirious state, as if she reached the absolute high, transformed into something else entirely. It's only after the shock of seeing Lily she snaps back to reality.

That is one way to look at that, but the popular version is of course that Nina is simply insane and we see the world as she sees it. There are many views on why is she ill. Many blame her mother. When I read the script I thought the mother was definitely the antagonist of the story. But after seeing the movie, I changed my mind. Barbara Hershey is fabulous in this role and she makes creepy character sympathetic. I interpreted her actions as those of the parent, who, yes, maybe is too attached to her child, but can she be blamed? Her daughter was under a lot of pressure, she was very fragile and she needed help. As for the cake scene – I assumed the mother was simply worried that Nina is not eating. Yes, she may be jealous of her daughter, maybe she even unconsciously wanted to sabotage her. But the horror her mother experienced during Nina's breakdown in the apartment and during her final seconds on the stage was genuine. Here is a loving mother who watches as her child loses the battle with her illness.

The pressure of the role is one thing, but two people make it worse – Thomas and Beth. Vincent Cassel portrays extremely interesting character here – a guardian of ballerinas, their teacher, but also a sleazy bastard who gets sex from them and treats them as his toys. Cassel manages to make Leroy sympathetic tough, with very simply gestures – when Thomas finally takes it easy and starts praising Nina for her dancing, showing her thumbs up and particularly when Nina kisses him after her triumphant dance as Black Swan and he seems as happy as a school kid, who got a kiss from prom queen. Beth, appears in only three scenes but is played with a lot of force by Winona Ryder. Her reason to be in the movie is simple – it shows what can happen to Nina after she succeeds. She can become big star and then one day, inevitably, fall from grace.
We see that Nina is having strange thoughts and visions even before she gets the role – she sees someone who looks exactly like her in the subway. Then her hallucinations are becoming more and more frequent, violent and scaring. What I enjoyed about the film is that first it signals something, than it amplifies it and in third act everything erupts. Nina tries to masturbate, later it results in extremely sensual love making scene with Lily (the scene has been very much talked about, I've got to say for a good reason – it doesn't have any nudity in it, but it is one of the best sex scenes in recent memory), she sees herself in the subway – she has full blown fight with her double, she sees the eyes of one painting move with the corner of her eye – all the paintings move and yell at her, she pulls one feather out of her back – her arms are covered in long, black feathers and create wings...
There are many things in “Black Swan” which we saw before – the obsessive mother/daughter relationship from “Carrie”, the vibrant colors and fountain scene from “Suspiria”, the body horror from “The Fly” and the terror of “The Tenant” and “Repulsion”. There was one scene in the shooting script, which didn't make it to the movie, where Nina finds a bag with dead rat in it. I thought it was a nice reference to “Repulsion” were decaying rabbit was a parallel for Carol's mind which was falling apart.

As Nina's mind is becoming more and more paranoid we see grotesque physical metamorphosis of her. It's as if her scratching was an attempt to dig underneath her skin deep enough to find the passion and the anger inside, to allow her to dance. Nina, unconsciously, is allowing Black Swan to emerge, she is making it easy for it. As her state worsens she starts to turn into actual swan, in the series of bizarre and freaky scenes, which I found fascinating to watch and apart from one scene (the feathers rapidly emerging from arms in a close up) very creepy and well made.
The movie is masterfully done. Reading the script is one thing – seeing how it actually looks on screen, especially in the hands of Aronofsky, who always has brilliant ideas is another. The club scene alone is mind blowing. When Lily and Nina dance, high and drunk, when the light in the club is green everything is normal. But when the light turns red...everything is surreal, Nina sees multiple faces of her, everywhere, characters from “Swan Lake” surrounding her, Lily embracing the evil sorcerer, the eyes of him staring at her. You won't see it with naked eye, you actually have to watch it frame by frame. Another fantastic sequence is, of course, the grand finale when Aronofsky captures movement with images – the camera dances along with the actors, we are in the middle of the show, which is something new for ballet scenes. When Nina dances Odile's Coda, most likely the most impressive part of the “Swan Lake” (shortened in the movie) and her arms turns into wings, when the audience bursts into applause we see Nina, fragile creature, standing on the stage, being completely human, but there are two shadows having wings on the wall. Ingenious. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique is gorgeous and we are always close to Nina, we often see the back of her head and we follow her, we only see her point of view and the tone never turns to objective, as for example in the ending of “Repulsion”. There are some haunting shots in this movie – the best one being Nina's foot en pointe, doing the full turn, jumping up, getting back to the ground and turning again. I liked the editing a lot – no clean cuts, just fade aways to another scenes – it gave movie and “old” feel and the fact most of it shot in the manner of “The Wrestler” with raw intensity and realism, just to turn into something surreal minute later, makes “Black swan” the kind of movie which messes with your mind and pulls you deep into the story.
The film is filled with easy to read, but clever symbols and use of colors. Nina is always wearing something white, whilst everyone around her, particularly Lily, wear black. In one scene, where Nina and Lily are out in the club, Lily gives Nina black shirt, almost as lending part of herself, which will result in Nina finally letting go and having fun. Thomas is usually wearing black and white or gray – he is neutral observer and he has no idea how much influence he has on Nina and her state of mind. Nina's room as well as roses she gets from Leroy are pink, another sign of her being really a child inside grown woman's body. Mirrors are heavily used – almost every time we see a mirror something freaky appears in it. The movie is also “Swan Lake” within “Swan Lake”, Nina being the White Swan, Lily being the Black one.
Clint Mansell, Aronofsky's composer on-duty, creates one of his finest scores, mixing Tchaikowsky's famous ballet and using completely new sounds achieves haunting and powerful effect. Sometimes sounding like old music, sometimes as a playful, almost circus-sounds (which accompany Nina's craziest transformation in the movie), at other times painfully heartbreaking (“Perfection” which is the variation of “Swan Lake”'s finale and plays during movie's most shocking scene), and sometimes erotic and alluring (“Lose Yourself” and “Opposites Attract”).

Natalie Portman was a perfect choice for Nina – an actress who doesn't have much talent, but works hard – she never created truly amazing performance but her time has finally come. Not only her dancing is impressive – she does most of her own ballet scenes and she trained for a year, but her acting ability particularly when Nina chooses to keep on dancing, no matter what prize she will have to pay for it, is amazing.
Many are puzzled by the ending, but the key to understanding is knowing what the term “Swan song” (the last track on the score) means. Nina's goal throughout the movie is to let go and become happy. She thought that letting go is being more free, more fun, less shy. But in the end she realizes, that madness holds her so tight, there is only one way to let go and remain someone she has always been and who she is in her heart – true White Swan.
“What if everything around you
Isn't quite as it seems?
What if all the world you think you know
Is an elaborate dream? “


1 comment:

  1. Terrific review! You nailed it! I too loved this film and it was magnificently executed. What an excellent adaptation of a music performance. Also, how did you make that thing with the letters that links to labels? How did you make that?