Sunday 2 January 2011

Black Swan

“It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
Neil Young: Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)

“Perfect. That was perfect.”

 When it comes to leaving a legacy, dancing must be a particularly difficult field. It all comes down to the night of the performance, the hours spent on stage, and essentially, no record of the event can capture what is actually happening. The thing that remains is the impression left in the minds of the audience, and the stories which the members of the audience will tell others. 
Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) serves as a cautionary tale. She has overstayed her welcome as the star of the fictional New York ballet company and is asked to retire, presumably before even reaching the age of forty. Unable to face a life outside the spotlight, she runs into traffic and has a terrible accident that leaves her body mutilated and unable to dance again. She has lost control over her own legacy - instead of remaining in the minds of people as a genius dancer, she will be remembered for the tragedy of her demise.
Nina’s (Natalie Portman) shock at seeing her predecessor immobile in her hospital room is only part of the horror she has to endure after being chosen for the highly contested role of both the White and the Black Swan in a “stripped-down and visceral” production of Swan Lake. Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the artistic director and visionary, demands that she gives her heart and soul to the role since perfection isn’t just about precision, and if she can’t seduce him, she won’t be able to have the necessary effect on the audience as the Black Swan.
Nina, in the beginning of the movie, is the perfect incarnation of the White Swan: innocent, tidy, quiet, she still lives in her childhood room in her mother’s (Barbara Hershey) apartment, and has an intense, symbiotic relationship with the overbearing former ballerina that is slightly disconcerting even before the movie reveals the extent of her mother’s control over Nina. Her inability to dance the Black Swan convincingly, or so Thomas argues, is rooted in her personality, not her ability as a dancer – and to dance the role means to give herself up entirely.
At the same time that Nina tries to meet the demands of the role, a new dancer challenges her by, seemingly, perfectly embodying everything that the Black Swan is: Lily (Mina Kunis) lacks Nina’s precision, but in a stunning performance, with loose hair flowing (Nina’s is always in a tidy bun), she defies the notion that Nina will eventually become perfect just by knowing her routine step by step. “She’s not faking it”, Thomas remarks, and Nina understands that he thinks that she is.
Lily is the embodiment of a character Nina needs to embrace in order to become perfect at her role, and already early into the movie, the lines between the potential competition and Nina’s other, slowly developing other personality start to blur. Nina’s metamorphosis is a crisis; she starts to hurt herself or imagines hurting herself, only to wake up with her body perfectly intact, but her mind in disarray. She grows unable to distinguish between Lily and what she imagines herself becoming. Her mother, who gave up her career to have her, becomes increasingly unsettled by the fact that her daughter can no longer be easily contained. The process of changing into the Black Swan requires that Nina carves out a new, if precarious, space for herself, which also means defying her mother and the expectations she has in Nina (she finds a piece of wood with which she can lock the door to her room, but her perception of the apartment becomes more and more claustrophobic, and that of her mother frightening). Her mother tries to control her body after realizing that her daughter is hurting herself (I actually found the scenes in which she clipped her daughters nails vaguely more disturbing than some of the more conventionally discomforting scenes), and reacts with hostility but ultimate helplessness to Nina’s attempts to break out by claiming her sexuality. The deeply unhealthy dynamic of their relationship is very reminiscent of the even more uncomfortable film version of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Player by Michael Haneke, in which a woman trapped in an apartment with her ageing mother finds disturbingly violent ways of taking out her own frustration and helplessness on herself. Thomas continues to challenge and criticize her
Black Swan is about the overwhelming demands on an artist to create a perfect masterpiece, which becomes even more complex considering that the conclusion also holds true for the movie itself, which demands incredible things from its lead actresses, but particularly from the stunning Natalie Portman. In the end, the viewer is trapped in Nina’s unreliable and collapsing perception of reality – and she finally embraces something that is both wonderful and destructive, something that enables her to give the one perfect performance and the legacy she has always desired, at the cost of a complete obliteration of herself.  

2010, directed by Darren Aronofsky, featuring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Ksenia Solo.

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