January 31, 2011 Leave a comment
By Rob Packer
I went to see Black Swan yesterday and thought it worked really well as an exploration of an insanity built up by years of pressure—even if the climax making half the audience roar with laughter. The film takes place around a New York production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with Natalie Portman playing the insecure ballerina, Nina. While auditioning for the role, Nina’s innocence is borne out in her depiction of the White Swan, but the more overt sensuality of the Black Swan escapes her and she is only cast at the last moment by ballet director, Thomas (Vincent Cassell) after he tries to kiss her and she bites him on the lip. At the same time, Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives at the company and becomes both Nina’s friend and rival for the lead role.
The film’s most constant motif is the doppelgänger, most obviously in the ballet world as the White and Black Swans and the understudy, or alternate as they say in the film; and in Nina’s catching glimpses of herself passing her doubles by on the street, the subway or the stage. But the doppelgänger theme goes deeper: from the beginning of the film the light greys and pinks of Portman’s clothes are contrasted with the darker hues clothing Lily and Nina’s mother, and Nina even seems to become a doppelgänger of herself when her image in a mirror stays still while she moves and scratches itself.
Nina’s mother is equally insecure, almost throwing away a cake to celebrate when her daughter gets the starring role. As the film progresses it becomes obvious that a bedroom full of cuddly toys and a ballerina musical box are there to enforce an extended childhood on Nina, the daughter whose birth meant that her mother’s own ballet career was cut short: Nina is obviously under pressure to succeed where her mother failed. And she seems to have been successful when at one point Thomas asks Nina if she’s a virgin, and the theme of youth (or pseudo-virginity) continues in the story of Beth (Winona Ryder), who Thomas appears to have forced into retirement.
The youthful body of a ballerina is also a frail one, and Nina’s fragility almost seems brittle as the camera focuses on toes bloody from dancing, Nina’s nervous and constant scratching her back and Thomas’ almost grotesquely large hands against a ballerina’s body. The physical trials of the ballerina mix with Nina’s own insecurities in hallucinatory sequences where her toes have fused together or she collapses as her legs snap.
Compared to Nina, Lily is her opposite: extroverted, sensual, ambitious, she is the Black Swan to match Nina’s innocence. She plays such an important part in Nina’s paranoia and hallucinations to the extent that I started to wonder whether she was “real” or the alter ego of Nina’s psychosis. As Nina comes closer to Lily and starts to act out her irrational side—reminding me the irrational Dämonische of Goethe or Thomas Mann that I came across studying German Literature at university—she comes to master the Black Swan and her portrayal at opening night draws rapturous applause from the audience, but the film’s ambiguous ending seems to say that Nina can’t control having a Black and White Swan persona within her at the same time.
Black Swan is a disturbing, but fantastic film. It combines the real with hallucinations in such a way that you leave the cinema confused and turning over in your head what was real and what was hallucination.