Masterclass Cinema – Black Swan (2010)

Direction: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Kassel, Barbara Hershey

“Ah, ballerinas. No wonder you two look alike.”

There is a recurring theme of duality and mirrors in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, as well as the original ballet piece Swan Lake on which it is based. In ballet, the dancers tend to look similar both due to their similar routines and for uniformity among the players on stage. Swan Lake casts the same dancer as both Odette (White Swan) and Odile (Black Swan), the two considered as twins in many adaptations. Black Swan is a cinematic masterpiece which does not employ Swan Lake as merely a plot device, but when observed closer becomes a twisted adaptation of it. It is a horribly beautiful film that beckons the audience to look closer through the uncomfortable psychological drama to feel, as Nina does, perfection. With a brilliant cast that is lost in its characters and oozing the sense of disturbed grace that the ballet is famous for, Black Swan haunts the minds of its viewers well after the runtime, dancing to the eerie music of Swan Lake.

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Swan Lake is the tragic tale of a princess who is cursed into the body of a white swan – Odette – and as all good fairytales go, needs a declaration of true love to break the curse. A promise of freedom comes in the form of a handsome prince who falls for Odette, who is then seduced by the black swan – Odile – and taken over by her, as Odette painfully watches. This tragic loss of love and hope leads Odette to jump off a cliff, thus finding freedom in death. A beautifully tragic tale in and of itself, the themes of Swan Lake find themselves transcended into disturbing reality in Aronofsky’s incredibly disturbing rendition. Nina is a girl who has devoted all her life to ballet, and has been waiting for the titular lead in a production for some time. This dedication was perhaps fuelled by her mother who had to give up her own dancing career to raise her child, and the two subsist in a relationship that is too close for comfort. But that is fitting to the film as a whole, as ‘comfort’ is the last thing you can hope to find in Black Swan, as typical of most Aronofsky features. When it is evident that the company star, Beth Macintyre – played impeccably by Winona Ryder – has outgrown her graceful age, the director Leroy sets about finding himself a new Swan Queen for his unconventional take on the classic. The horribly autocratic Leroy is notorious for playing with his dancers in twisted fashion, in both sexually and psychologically traumatizing manner and it is into this challenging atmosphere that Nina is cast – or cursed, like Odette.

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As the Swan Queen, Nina is responsible for the opposing roles of White and Black Swans, and it is this character conflict that transposes itself as a conflict of identity for poor, frail, ‘sweet-girl’ Nina. She is the virgin of adage, a representation of purity that was shielded throughout her life by her over-protective – and at times controlling? – Mother; the white yin that invites the yang unknowingly within. The film abounds with metaphors such as these, with the dual role lending itself to colours that are visually opposite to each other. In show business, it is a common line to run: ‘give it your all’, and it is perhaps this black humour that Aronofsky finds in the descent of Nina’s mind. Sure, this could very well have stayed a piece that takes on the many-tried themes of rivalry and perseverance in the midst of treachery, but Black Swan aims for something on a deeper level, something vastly more confusing – and finding beauty in that confusion – in the psyche of this very personification of the White Swan. At the start, Nina is the perfect dancer for the White Swan which calls for fragility and grace, but cannot master the Black Swan which wants a sinful passion she was never allowed to have.

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The most uncomfortable element of this disturbing affair is not the transformation or the illusions that Nina conjures, but something much closer to home – and perhaps the cause for everything to follow – ‘home’ being a prison-like apartment where Nina lives under the constant scrutiny of her mother; a relationship bordering on the incestuous. In a film where eyes play a large role in portraying the shades of the persona, Nina’s mom was perfectly cast, what with eyes that we see eerily reflected in the Black Swan makeup that Nina dons at the very end. It is easy enough to see that this piece is many-layered and complex, even though to understand what those deeper meanings and themes are requires introspection. The very reason for this entire episode is Nina’s one-track life upto this point; one that followed a singular path ushered by her mother, and refused to give over to indulgences, again under Mother Swan’s watch. Aronofsky puts conventional directorial techniques to good use, cleverly placing dramatic cutaways and zooming of the camera in conventionally inappropriate places: thus reemphasizing the disturbia unfolding on screen. This effect is accentuated in a particular scene where Nina is lying in bed and finds her mother right next to her, something that is truly frightening considering what she was doing then. This film, according to me, is the epitome of his recurring theme: discomfort and disturbing imagery, something that when placed alongside the beautiful end that it culminates in, makes for perfect cinema.

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Black Swan has uncanny similarities to the 1997 animated movie by Satoshi Kon, Perfect Blue, especially in the conflict of the twins and identity struggle of the protagonist. While it is clear that Aronofsky drew certain stylistic and metaphoric inspirations from this other disturbing film, the purpose of the imagery and where he carries them to are distinct enough to make them separately individual films in their own right. In Perfect Blue too, the main character sees another girl who looks exactly like herself and this leads to some disturbing events and loss of her sanity as she struggles to distinguish between dreams and reality. Nina in Black Swan is no stranger to such dreamscapes and illusions, especially when confronted with Lily, played by an effervescent and seductive Mila Kunis. Lily represents all that Nina was never able to be: a free-spirit, living life as she pleases and indulging in its sinful pleasures, all of which strike a chord of individuality and ‘life’ in the midst of the other ballerinas who dance obediently to the music. It may be Nina’s envy of Lily that leads her to open her gates to let the darkness within, even more than her dedication to perfect the role. In a comical way, it is a dark twist on the aged stories where the dedicated student who relies on skill is taught to let go and to play with passion rather than technique.

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While this is indeed Aronofsky at his peak, particularly before he turned to underwhelming projects like Noah, there are more than just a few words to be said about the performances in Black Swan. Natalie Portman is, as Nina says at the end ‘perfect’ in her role, never letting out for a moment that she is merely an actress playing a role. If Nina had trouble handling both the sides of the Swan Queen in the ballet production, no such trouble haunts Portman’s handling of the two ego-conflict of her mind. She effortlessly dances the line between the two: refusing to break character, rendering a most expressive and disturbingly real performance which is what drives this brutal film. This being a film about identities and illusions that mirror the self, its execution rests to a large extent on the shoulders of whoever takes on the titular role, making this another mirror of the Swan Lake tale transposed to film. An equally moving and frightening performance is afforded by Barbara Hershey who fills the shoes of the mother, rightly titled ‘The Queen’ on IMDB. In her, we see the worn out Swan Queen, one with both Odette and Odile in her, constantly switching from caring mother to torturous jailer, although this pronunciation of her opposing qualities might well be a result of us seeing her through the eyes of Nina. In every almost lustful glance she casts on her daughter, she seems to be reliving her own fantasy through Nina: in every painting that she does, in every little act toward claiming Nina as more and more her own. It is this incredible dynamic between mother and daughter that makes it unbearably difficult to turn our eyes away from the disturbing images unfolding on screen.

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Disturbing is what Black Swan promises, and it delivers nothing less; the director manages to put increasingly cringe-worthy images and yet not lose itself in just the visual cinema. Aronofsky fails to steer from his vision of a beautiful yet scarring portrait that once you start peeling at, will give away to the seams not unlike a particularly gruesome skin-related scene in this very film. There is quite a lot to digest in this piece, which cleverly swims in and out of illusion and dreams, projections of Nina’s superego and id that represent the black and white. As all good illusions go, it is quite possible to figure out the more realistic events and sights from the nightmares and illusions that do not necessarily take place in Nina’s head either. But this is one film where the intrigue dwells more in the confusion and not knowing so, which lends itself to a more beautiful close. That is not to say that one is better off ignoring the real events and how Nina’s id – the Black Swan – constructs the rest around it, for that is required to fully appreciate the delusional web she has drawn herself into, particularly when she dances the Black Swan act – the bravura – and imagines webbed feet, black-feathered wings and nightmarish red eyes which do not present themselves to her audience. And all the constructive disturbia pays off really well in the last dance, which is nothing short of terrifying – an adjective I’d never thought I would use to describe a dance. One of the most striking frames in the entire film accompanies this: when Nina poses herself for the Black Swan’s last stance, her feathered self as she sees it cuts away to the audience’s eye where one very human ballerina stands tip-toe and arms apart –while her silhouettes mirror her own delusion. In short, unlike other confusing cinema, Black Swan is best left alone on strict logical scrutiny and yet with the realization of Nina’s delusion – which is seemingly the intent of the maker.

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With a poetic homage to Swan Lake, and a transcendent level of story that mirrors the themes back and forth, Black Swan invites us into what can seem to be a fairytale, but keeping the same atmosphere presents a disturbed beauty. Not your conventional twist on a classic, Aronofsky dives deep into the murky unsure waters of Nina’s psyche to conjure some of the best metaphors and unsettling imagery: thereby elevating it above a simple story of pride and rivalry. What may seem at first to be a battle of egos will boil down to an internal struggle, as Nina realizes what Leroy tells her at the very start, that the only thing standing in her way is herself. Driven by a most remarkable performance by Natalie Portman – one she has yet to rival – and supported by the compelling work of Mila Kunis, Vincent Kassel and Barbara Hershey – just as the small swans do the Swan Queen – it is a psychological brute we cannot turn our eyes away from. An artistic and elaborate scheme of real and the not, instilling multiple winces in the audience all culminating in that breathtaking finale, Black Swan is truly one to stand the test of time.

Rating: 9.2/10

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