Posted on February 9, 2011 by Flames
It’s a wonderful time to be alive, at least until the Mayan calendar runs out next December and the sun goes dark. The year is 2011, the internet rules, I have a magic box in my pocket that can access the sum total of human knowledge, and a ballet-sploitation were-swan horror flick is a serious contender for five Academy Awards.
Part of the buzz about Black Swan is purely technical: in this film, Natalie Portman realizes the promise she showed way back in Leon (or The Professional, depending on your country of origin). As of Black Swan, she is one of the greatest actresses of our generation.
Director Darren Aronofsky has weaponized the tight, psychological style he began to develop in Pi. Matthew Libatique’s camera wonderfully evokes the power of the central characters’ madness, and their dance.
There’s more at work in this film than technical proficiency, though. Black Swan is terrifying. I spent, conservatively, two thirds of this movie with my feet off the floor and my hands clenched into claws because every muscle in my body tensed and refused to relax. An hour into Black Swan I checked my watch – not because I was bored, but because I wanted to see how much more of this movie I needed to survive. I managed to make it fifteen minutes before checking my watch again, for exactly the same reason.
Don’t believe the synopsis, about pure, sheltered, “light side” ballerina Nina Sayers (Portman), who confronts the darkness inside her while trying to learn how to dance the role of the seductive Black Swan. Like many slug lines, this Jekyll-and-Hyde summary roughly describes the film’s plot, and completely misses its point. Were the story so simply Manichean, it wouldn’t be half as scary.
This is a film about madness – about the power of the mind turned against the body, the soul, and the universe. Nina is obsessed with perfecting her art, and her art is lonely, and dangerous.
This film shows dancers as athletes-athletes more hard core than cage fighters in some respects, because ballet moves were created for beauty, with little thought to how they might hurt the dancer. Black Swan revels in damage to extremities: broken legs and split nails, scraped skin, scissors on fingertips, hands in the way of closing doors. Natalie Portman’s hands and feet, legs and arms and body, do wonderful, serene, unnatural things in this film, which makes the threat of injury to those hands, those feet, those legs and arms, that body all the worse.
However, the greatest injuries in Black Swan are mental, not physical.
The world of ballet in this movie is immensely competitive: thirty chorus girls hover around one ingenue, and distrust and suspicion run rampant. In her pursuit of perfection and control, Nina finds all sources of human warmth cut off or perverted. Her mother, played with ominous glee by Barbara Hershey, is a stage mom horror story, more dedicated to Nina’s success than she is to Nina. Nina, too, is more dedicated to success than to her own well-being: she’s always watching herself, always reflecting, terrified of surrendering enough to engage with anyone who might relieve her mounting sense of isolation.
The camera’s obsessive focus is Nina’s own. From the first shot, of Nina alone in white on a jet-black stage, through the final credits, the camera stalks her, shaking when she moves, sweeping when she spins. We are Nina, watching herself, consumed by herself. Many of the best scares in this film come from simple camera control: an out-of-focus presence behind a character, or a sudden cut revealing that someone who thought she was alone is actually being observed, or shadowed, by another. The camerawork invites us to identify with Nina, but because the horror in these scenes is behind the camera, we are also the things that haunt her-which is fair, because Nina is haunting herself.
Nina forces her body, and her mind, to do things they never evolved to do. She walls off the parts of her that are wild, unrestrained, sensual, abandoned to ecstasy. To succeed at dancing the Black Swan, she must tap that power, but when she does, her deep need for control warps and twists her shadow against her.
She is not confronting some inner demon; she’s confronting the Dionysian revel, the orgasmic self-destructive moment. She should embrace it, but she cannot – her need for control is too great. She tries to fight it, instead, and that combat pulls her further from anyone who might help her. This self-destructive struggle for control elevates the movie from a tale of one woman’s descent into madness, to a warning about our whole society.
First-worlders like to think that modernity has made us all more connected, that our giant social media love-fest helps us be healthier human beings. With cell phones, Facebook, and the internet, with television and newspapers and electric lights, we hug our knees and think we’re not alone any more.
But at the same time we demand and reward technical proficiency, perfection, advanced skills, and success on the knife-edge of celebrity. Our culture loves perfection, thrives on it, hungers for it like a drug. Because I have a magic box in my pocket that contains the sum knowledge of the human race, I have an illusion of control, and the more I believe in that illusion, the more powerful becomes the voice I strangle in the depths of my mind.
Your control is your madness, that voice cries. Some day you will shrivel and die. Fanged creatures will rise from the depths and overwhelm you. The sun will turn black, and this year, like every year, will be the last of your life.
It’s a wonderful time to be alive. And Black Swan is a serious contender for five Academy awards because, by highlighting the dangers of our time, it might help us stay alive a little longer.
Review by Max Gladstone