Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Black Swan (2010) - *Definite spoilers*

Viewing context:
Thanks to mother in law Sunday babysitting, me and Tasha went to see it together.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, who has barely put a foot wrong with the only film of his that isn’t breathtakingly brilliant being The Fountain. I aren’t in any way against this film; I loved the ideas behind it and its contemplative nature, but it isn’t the masterpiece that all his others are (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream and Pi). Screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin

What Happened:
Nina’s (Natalie Portman) life is nothing but ballet. The film opens just prior to the new season, as the theatre’s producer/director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is choosing a successor to his aged (well aged in ballet standards) former star, Beth (Winona Ryder). Given the opportunity to fill this role, Nina must show that she can be more than her natural state as the White Swan; she must be able to undertake the metamorphosis into the Black Swan.

What it did particularly well:
The entire film was intense. A lot rested on Natalie Portman, and she didn't half pull it off. She was a little irritating/frustrating, but that was the character more than it was the actress; a character trait that was essential for last act to work so well. It wasn't until the final scene that this could be fully appreciated, as Portman shifted up a couple of gears for her metamorphosis. I had wondered throughout, how she would convincingly change, but having seen those eyes looking so fragile and scared throughout, all of a sudden full of confidence and a sense of control really convinced.
From pretty much the opening scene focusing on the battered feet of a ballerina there were numerous points that centred on the physical intensity of this punishing lifestyle and the amount of punishment she herself was willing to go through. This combined to have me on edge, responding to the characters, as well as displaying how an utterly unflattering lifestyle this is. Portman somehow looked simultaneously horrible and physically tortured, yet graceful and beautiful.
Her relationship with Lily (Mila Kunis) is amazing; I was frequently as tricked as Nina was regarding what was happening with her. The fact that she could be winding Nina up in order to get her role, or that it could all be in Nina's head were both as convincing throughout most of the film (whilst most likely being a little bit of both). Nina simply saw whatever she needed to in order to push her into becoming this other person, the Black Swan. She would find any hook, any key, any way to convince her mind to change.

It was about as subtle as a brick in its Freudian themes of the ‘other’; of the subconscious; the unquenchable lack, leading to the death drive, and all kinds of other such psychoanalytically related notions. I wish I was versed enough in my Lacan to have the confidence to tuck into all these points, but it is an area I need - and intend - to be brushing up on this year. I may even use this text as my frame of reference when reading up on the main points of psychoanalytic theory.
Framing the film in the feminine world of ballet, a stark contrast to Aranofsky's last film, The Wrestler, set in the uber-masculine world of professional wrestling, could be read as an intentional comment on femininity. Additionally, consider the eternally infntilised feminine world her mother has kept her in; her room looks akin to a child's room, pink everywhere and littered with teddies.
The other major difference between this and The Wrestler is the age. The wrestler was about an aging (fading) star, whereas Nina is yet to even become a star when she begins her descent. Perhaps a comment on just how little a life women can have to enjoy before being crippled by the weight of expectation (of others, but more importantly of them self).
The film also plays with ideas of what is important to different people. Was the end a happy one? What was important to Nina was being perfect, and that performance was perfect; possibly as perfect as she could get. She had reached the pinnacle of what she loved and we saw no signs that she could have any kind of life outside of ballet. In fact, the scene in the bar just showed how she can only even engage in conversation when it is about ballet and cannot grasp that other people don't get it. Further still, we see - and Nina sees - what happens to aging stars by showing us how badly Beth is dealt with by Thomas and the rest of the ballet community.

What unimpressed or didn't quite reach potential:
Nothing really, fine just as it is.

Performance of the film:
No doubts, Natalie Portman.

Scene of the film:
Final act. The whole performance and transformation is an amazing payoff.

Final Word:
Worked on many fronts: Perfect genre film, whilst still getting in real character depth. It was beautiful to look at; the dancing was exhilarating; the spectacle and the thriller/horror tropes worked really well and it had great performances. It is a brilliant allrounder.


  1. You're completely right about that final scene - when Portman 'becomes' the Black Swan is amazing and you can see what Vincent Cassels character was trying to say about being free - and being content with dominating the stage, etc.

    It will be interesting to see if it becomes Iconic because, if it does, it won't be forgotton, or if it doesn't ... it just might be.


  2. Cheers for the comment Simon, I think it should stand up. The only sect I have heard criticism from is those particularly defensive of The Red Shoes. I will never say a bad word about Powell and Pressburger - A Matter of Life and Death has just about taken over Do the Right Thing as my all time favourite film - but I think the dance scene in that film had been bulled up too much and overhyped by the time I saw it. To the point where I thought it was great, but I had been led to believe it was going to be so good that my head would just explode when watching it or something.

    Bottom line, as controversial as it might be, I think the transformation scene in Black Swan is more impressive.