“It’s a Polanski movie, and then it becomes a Dario Argento movie. And maybe a little bit of David Cronenberg too.”–Vincent Cassell
DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky
PLOT: Nina, a goody two-shoes ballerina, wants to dance the lead role in a production of “Swan Lake,” but although she’s perfect for the role of the White Swan, she lacks the seductiveness to portray the Black Swan. Lily, a sexy, irresponsible dancer newly arrived from a San Francisco troupe, becomes her primary competition for the part, but also helps her loosen up by talking her out on the town for a night of drinking and meeting guys. Nina starts physically break down and hallucinate as the stress of preparing for the role takes its toll; by opening night, she can’t distinguish reality from the story she dances of the princess trapped in the body of a swan who takes her own life.
- Natalie Portman danced many of her own parts, and actually dislocated a rib while dancing during the shoot. More difficult moves were performed by professional ballerinas, and for two sequences Portman’s face was digitally superimposed on dancer Sarah Lane’s body. There was a minor controversy over how much of the dancing Portman actually did herself and how much was performed by doubles; Aronofsky estimated that the actress executed more than 80% of the dance moves that appear onscreen.
- Portman won the 2010 Best Actress Oscar for her role as Nina. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Editing.
- Aronofsky received “The Understudy,” the original script that became Black Swan, while he was making Requiem for a Dream (2000). He described the script as Dostoevsky’s “The Double” meets All About Eve. Aronofsky combined that script, which was set in an off-Broadway production, with an idea he had to shoot a movie in the New York ballet world to create Black Swan.
- Aronofsky and Portman had discussed doing a ballet movie together 8 years prior to shooting.
- Made on a relatively small budget of about $12 million, Black Swan has grossed more than $300 million worldwide as of this writing.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nina’s “triumphant” onstage transformation into the Black Swan: as she pirouettes, feathers sprout from her arms, thickening with every swirl, until her limbs have been replaced by wings.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Up until opening night, Black Swan is a backstage melodrama about backstabbing ballerinas, with an exaggerated, lurid psychopathology that’s thrust even further over-the-top by lesbian love scenes, hints of horror, and mirrors, mirrors, mirrors. When the curtain rises on the big night, we experience the performance through the subjective perspective of an overworked, paranoid, demented dancer, whose psychology has been shattered by the film’s sledgehammer symbolism. No avant-grade choreographer could stage as disorienting a “Swan Lake” as the one she hallucinates for us through her obsessed eyes.
Promotional Music Video for Black Swan
COMMENTS: Black Swan is the weirdest movie ever to win a major Academy Award (Natalie Portman’s Best Actress nod). Swan also received a Best Picture nom, but that was in the recently-expanded field of ten nominees: we’ll never know if a movie where the protagonist hallucinates and metamorphoses into a bird could have made it in the historical field of five, but considering that now-revered classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Brazil have traditionally been considered too outré to be shortlisted, it seems doubtful. (A Clockwork Orange did manage to get a Best Picture nomination in 1972, but that may have been the Academy’s make-up call for missing the boat so badly on 2001). For the time being, Black Swan is weird cinema’s most recognized and decorated film, a fact which by itself is enough to make it a Must See feature in the genre.
How does a film where pictures on a wall literally laugh at the heroine, and major plot points may not even happen, worm its way into the ultra-conservative, ultra-literal, historical-epic favoring Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ good graces? Director Darren Aronofsky, who began his career with the punky, experimental and Certified Weird Pi, ingratiated himself with cinematic conservatives in 2008 with the (excellent) sports drama The Wrestler, proving to the mainstream that he could be “more” than just a technically proficient cult/arthouse director whose tastes ran dangerously close to the surreal. Building on that success, Arnofsky assembled a classy cast, headlined by Portman, for his followup project. It didn’t hurt the film’s prestige that it was to be set in the high-art strata of the New York City dance world and feature the music of Tchaikovsky; no one could doubt the film’s serious intent.
Buzz began to build around Black Swan, and particularly around Portman. At 29, the Israeli-born actress/model was at the peak of her beauty and had already paid her dues in Hollywood, acquitting herself admirably in dozens of roles from the orphaned Lolita of Léon to the lone important female role in the Star Wars prequels without ever having sniffed a major acting award. Observers noted that Portman studied ballet intensively for six months prior to shooting, becoming an athlete and exhibiting the sort of dedicated physical transformation that makes the Academy sit up and take note. A more salacious sort of buzz began to form around the reported love scene with sexy co-star Kunis. Portman, like ballerina Nina, had a perfectionist, goody-two shoes image: she had even put her acting career on hold for four years to pursue a psychology degree at Harvard. The notion of the Crimson grad locked in a lipstick-lesbian tryst, while arousing interest in itself, had the further virtue of appearing to cast her against type (in fact, the role of prim, perfectionist Nina comported almost perfectly with Portman’s public image).
Portman was thus positioned for success, and the sensual but repressed performance she delivers as Nina is indeed worthy of the Oscar (though if I were voting in 2010, I would have cast my ballot for Jennifer Lawrence’s spunky teenage meth-orphan from Winter’s Bone). Nina, who’s dedicated her life to dance, is a woman whose sexual development stalled at that precious stage when she first became infatuated with ballerinas, stuffed animals and the color pink. Uncomfortably, she still calls her mother (a former dancer who now manages her daughter’s career and keeps her a virtual prisoner in their shared apartment) “mommy.” She demurs questions about whether, in her late twenties, she’s still a virgin, and responds with breathy trepidation to a man’s, a woman’s, and even to her own intimate touch. Physically, Portman inhabits the delicate but constantly bruised and busted body of a ballerina; she looks natural stretching out in sweats or a tutu, and when an attendant cracks her feet and depresses her strained diaphragm, you believe you’re watching trainer work over an athlete. Her dancing is impressive, not for the technique (which most people won’t be able to judge) but for the confidence she projects when she whirls her way onstage as the Black Swan, her eyes blazing under the dramatic black-feathered eyeshadow with a true performer’s passion.
There are two competing themes in Black Swan: a child-woman’s fear of growing up, and an artist’s need to supplement her technique with passion. Both paths require sacrifice: she must kill the little girl inside to become a woman, and to reach perfection she must be willing to risk everything for her art. The point at which the two strains meet and harmonize is sex; Nina’s artistic and sexual maturity, while weaving separate melodies, climax together. As an artist, it’s stressed (actually, it’s rammed down our throats) that Nina’s perfectionism inhibits her perfecting her art; she’s so concerned with proper technique that she’s always thinking about her next move and never able to abandon herself to passion. Mila Kunis’ Lilly is the opposite; her movements are imprecise but full of natural allure. It’s the ancient struggle between the rational Apollonian and chaotic Dionysian artistic impulses, between the right brain and the left brain, between the White Swan and the Black, both of which must be balanced and integrated together to produce a meaningful work of art (or a life). Nina must learn to dance both the White and the Black Swan, and that will involve learning to surrender herself to an artistic passion; essentially, to sexual abandonment. Nina is not a woman; she’s a little girl trying to act pretty for her mother, trapped inside a body she’s yet to come to terms with. Symbolically, Nina is on the cusp of womanhood; the bizarre and frightening changes her body undergoes, although they may take the form of gooseflesh and webbed toes instead of budding breasts, represent the onset of puberty. Her sexual maturity and her artistic maturity occur together. Nina’s final act of artistic fulfillment, when she integrates the Black Swan into her personality and performance, occurs via an act of penetration. The blood staining the lower abdomen of her virginal white tutu comes from her symbolically broken creative hymen.
Black Swan‘s popular and critical success is almost as mysterious as the film’s ambiguous resolution. The movie seems too exploitative for arthouse crowd, yet nowhere near explicit enough for the grindhouse crowd. It mixes genres promiscuously; it’s inspired by backstage melodramas, enlivened by horror movie conventions and topped with neo-surrealism. The category it fits in most comfortably may be “psychological thriller,” yet though there are very few genuine thriller elements in it: unlike genre classics like Jacob’s Ladder or The Machinist, there’s no mystery to be solved by exploring the protagonist’s psychology. Black Swan works instead as a character study of Nina’s subconscious, and there’s no event in the movie for which it makes much difference whether it takes place in reality or in her imagination. The tone is deliberate melodrama, and the few critics who didn’t connect with the movie believed that it strayed over the line of exaggerated emotion into pure camp (there were even a few unkind comparisons to Showgirls). Some found it trashy, although it’s only “trashy” in the tame sense Pauline Kael used the term; but anyone who uses the term “trashy” to insult this film reveals themselves as unqualified to judge great trash. Black Swan mixes the “high” art of Tchaikovsky, the ballet, and modernist set design with the “low” art of lurid melodrama, horror movie conventions and gratuitous lesbian love scenes. Like Nina dancing both the virginal White Swan and the seductive Black Swan, the film struts out both its high and low impulses, harmonizing the sublime beauty of art film and the pure passion of genre film into an artistic whole. At the film’s close, Nina whispers “it’s perfect;” that’s no longer Nina’s, but Aronofsky’s voice we’re hearing.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…vivid and engrossing, teetering between trash and art, a sleek exploitation borrowing from (among others) Fight Club and The Fly, Mulholland Drive and Persona…. [yet i]n the end, for all its imagination and artistry, Aronofsky’s film achieves neither the pristine elegance of the white swan nor the hallucinatory depravity of the black. It fades, instead, to gray.”–Christopher Orr, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)
“Black and white, good and evil, ambition and obsession, delusion and reality are all blended together in this crazy, weird, compelling film, and it’s masterful, inventive storytelling, whether you like the end result or not.”–Kim Voynar, Movie City News (contemporaneous)
OFFICIAL SITE: Fox Searchlight – Black Swan – Official Site – A very nice site with numerous news items, concept art to download, and several short video featurettes
IMDB LINK: Black Swan (2010)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Interview: Darren Aronofsky On Music, Scares And Gender In Black Swan – This Aronofsky interview by Katey Rich of Cinema Blend is a lot more interesting than the director’s discussion with MTV, even though they don’t discuss the lesbian scene at all
Black Swan | Darren Aronofsky’s Dances with ‘Swan’ – Steve Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times describes the genesis of Black Swan
Black Swan: The Exhibition: A Black Swan-inspired L.A. art exhibit curated by Dominic Sidhu (who created art used in the film)
Black Swan dance double controversy – Someone thought the hoo-ha over who did most of the dancing in the film was significant enough to deserve an entire Wikipedia article
DVD INFO: The Fox Searchlight DVD (buy) contains a 49-minute documentary featurette, “Black Swan Metamorphosis,” as the only extra (expect a Special Edition release down the road). The Blu-ray release (buy) adds extra interviews with the actors and also includes the now ubiquitous “digital copy” of the film. Some of these special features can be previewed at Black Swan‘s official site.
Note that the rental DVD version available from Netflix and other outlets does not contain any special features, unless you consider previews of other attractions “special.” This marketing strategy is increasingly being used by certain studios, notably Fox, in hopes of bolstering sagging DVD sales.