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Non-Review Review: Black Swan

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir. Today’s theme is “alterna-noir” – just looking at slightly unusual choices.

Wow. That was disturbing. It’s really rare to get such a strong reaction to a film, and to feel so distinctly uncomfortable. Well, it’s easy to feel distinctly uncomfortable – rent a Lars Von Trier film or The Human Centipede. However, the Black Swan feels bold and vivid and disturbing, without ever feeling cheap. It seems to be a very tough line to walk (especially given some of the sequences which could be deemed “trashy” in the hands of lesser directors), but the Black Swan manages to make the viewer squirm in their seats without ever feeling dirty.

Let's dance!

Okay, I’ll be honest. The Black Swan is perhaps the toughest film of any of the ones I’ll cover over the For The Love of Film Noir blogathon to classify as a film noir. I’ll be honest and concede that I did want to cover one of the Best Picture nominees and shied away from the obvious choices of Inception or Winter’s Bone. However, one definitely feels the influence of the genre, breathing heavily down the back of their neck – ready to bite. The elements are there, pronounced in the way that Aronofsky directs the film. The pronounced usage of black and white, light and dark, an unstable and uncertain world that threatens our leading character – the distorted perception that character has of the world around them.

Marlisa Santos made the argument in The Dark Mirror that film noir was heavily driven by advances in the field of psychiatry during the forties and fifties and there’s certainly a strong element of that at play here. Doppelgangers, mirrors and (most obviously) heavily emphasised shadows were common devices used in classic noir to demonstrate a character’s darker nature, and one can spot a strong influence of the classic style on Aronofsky’s camera work – the camera is always closed tight on Nina when she’s out in the world, even when travelling in an almost empty subway car. The ballet study is (as one would expect) a hall of mirrors and some of the more subtly disturbing effects that Aronofsky employs involve reflections.

The movie essentially follows ballerina Nina as she prepares for the season ahead. I think we’ve all heard how difficult it is to be a skilled ballet dancer, the immense physical and psychological strain that must weigh on a person as they strive for that sort of perfection and control – but even then the world that Aronofsky portrayed is still very harsh. We’re introduced to Nina binding her feet (like in those stories we hear about Chinese women), and throwing up in a toilet (while still forcing herself to eat to please her domineering mother).

It's certainly well-staged...

It’s clear that, even before the preparations for the new season begin, Nina is not a healthy person. Her mother constantly inspects her body to make sure she hasn’t been “scratching again” – a habit of coping that has drawn blood in the past. She has given up her life for this dancing – asked if she’s ever had a boyfriend, Nina remarks that she has “but nothing serious” and I’m not sure I believe that she even talks to boys.

Her mother keeps her under her thumb. There are no locked doors in the house, no hint of privacy. Her mother takes every opportunity to remind Nina what “I gave up to have you” (even though she was 28 at the time and, as the film remarks, over the hill). Nina becomes, paradoxically, the outlet for her mother’s unfulfilled ambition (keeping her like a caged animal and allowing her to push herself so far with only an occasional half-hearted word of concern) and also a victim of misplaced self-loathing (one might be forgiven for thinking that giant cake and emotional blackmail were a (perhaps subconscious) attempt to sabotage a daughter who is more successful than she ever was).

He's very direct with her...

When the ballet company plans a rendition of Swan Lake, Nina just can’t escape it. The music is everywhere. It’s her ringtone, the music box by her bed and even in the nightclubs she goes out to. It’s very clever of Aronofsky to essentially cull the movie’s soundtrack from the classic ballet, as it creates a wonderful impression of just how deeply the work has crawled into Nina’s life. It is everywhere.

In many ways, Black Swan is that most primal of fairytales, the virginal story. Nina dresses in white for most of the film. She is perfect and unspoilt. She has to steal lipstick from another ballerina and apply it in the subway (while her mother isn’t watching). Her bedroom is decorated with stuffed animals. Her mother nearly has a heart attack when she discovers her daughter wearing ear rings. “They’re fake,” Nina assures her mother. Her body is a temple, pure and wholesome. Even Thomas, the ballet director (who has, to quote Nina’s mother, “a reputation”) seems unable to touch her.

Nina embraces her sexuality...

Over the course of the film, as Thomas encourages her to play with her darker side, this corruption is inevitably portrayed through sex – particularly debased masturbation (and the repeated symbolism of blood on Nina’s fingertips isn’t exactly subtle), let alone an already infamous scene in the middle of the film. It’s a theme which dates back to time before time, the attempt to link a woman’s sex drive to corruption and darkness – it’s an almost puritanical idea, this notion that female sexuality is to feared and restrained. The more I think about it, the more uncomfortable that association is to me – this idea that female sexuality is inherently dangerous. It’s an old story, and one which makes me uncomfortable.

The entire movie is based around the premise that Nina’s exploration of her sexuality leads her out of control and into a cycle-of-self-destruction. It speaks of these awkward old-world ideas, the kind of logic that suggests a promiscuous man is a ladykiller to be lauded, but a promiscuous woman is a slut to be shunned. Unlike the other facets of the movie, which are clearly an attempt by Aronofsky to deconstruct the sexism inherent in entertainment, this core notion isn’t really commented upon. Nina’s sexual exploration “spoils” her, which is a very awkward plot device (albeit an oft-used one) for a movie which is built around telling us of the unfair standards we impose on women.

Of course, in fairness to Aronofsky, it isn’t quite clear cut as that. Thomas, the instigator of this change, is portrayed as something of a predator – a wolf amongst the sheep, so to speak and never someone to feel completely at ease with. He patronisingly describes Beth, the former lead dancer, as “my little princess” (a description that Lily, another dancer, aptly describes as “gross”). In fact, Nina’s confused sexual feelings towards Thomas are pretty adequately (if crudely) summed up as “hot for teacher” – a description which suggests just how unwholesome Thomas’ attitude towards his dancers is (given Nina has been dancing since she was a child, it implies that he has – subconciously or not – been “grooming” her, given he should be an almost parental figure).

On reflection...

In fact, the film rather brilliantly explores the way that entertainment objectifies women. It’s a film about ballet, but a lot of the points it makes could well relate to film or television. Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, starts the film as skinny as Christian Bale in The Fighter. You can count her ribs. And yet, by the climax, she’s lost even more weight. Does anyone at the show express concern? Nope. The costume designer’s exact words are “very good.” When Thomas has an issue with how Nina is dancing, he demands of her male colleagues,“Do you want to f*** her?” – as if that is all she should aspire to. Screw grace and poise, to get ahead you need to be f***able. Would he ask the female dancers that question about a male lead? I think not.

And when we’re done with these woman, what does our culture do? It throws them away. Beth is a young woman, and (according to Nina) “a beautiful dancer”, but she’s forced into retirement because she’s too old. “It’s sad,” Nina remarks. Men don’t see their careers stalled by a similar “sell by” date. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor who trades on his body rather than his talent, can still return to making movies at sixty-odd years of age.

However, you know what’s really sad? How the institutions are designed to pit these women against each other. Nina, in her innocence, is the only one who thinks it’s sad that a great dancer is being so easily brushed aside because of age – all the other ballerinas have their claws out and are competing against each other to replace her. Nobody thinks too much about the system, because they’re all trained and institutionalised to compete against each other. That’s the sort of manipulation that women face in the entertainment industry, one dominated by men like Thomas – who will exploit and turn the women against each other so they can’t even tell that something’s wrong. That, my friends, is really sad.

The worst case of pinkeye I've ever seen...

Aronofsky’s movie suggests a reason for the sort of self-destructive behaviour that we see so frequently in young stars and starlets. In fact, the casting of Winona Ryder as Beth is a beautiful piece of casting – Ryder too is a talented (if troubled) performer who saw her career cut short. The film suggests that it is the darkness that these young woman harness which simultaneously leads to breakdowns (as we’ve seen with Lindsay Lohan, for example) and makes them so interesting to watch.

Asked to explain how he knows that an accident involving Beth was not an accident, Thomas responds, “Because everything Beth does comes from within. From some dark impulse. I guess that’s what makes her so thrilling to watch. So dangerous. Even perfect at times, but also so damn destructive.” It’s a universal observation which attempts to rationalise the self-destruction of talents like Owen Wilson and River Phoenix and James Dean.

He's a fountain of knowledge...

Natalie Portman is amazing here. She’s just superb, managing to cover a huge range of emotions and states of mind – frequently caught between two or more. I’m going to just say that she deserves the Oscar for her performance. Aronofsky’s supporting cast is eclectic, but solid. Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder and Mila Kunis are all wonderful – though none ever distract attention from Portman’s powerful central performance.

It’s hard to classify what Aronofsky has done here. He draws from psychological drama, vintage horror and film noir to craft something that is distinctly unique. I am hesitant to describe the resultant cocktail using a genre keyword, but it is certainly potent. I’m even more curious to see what Aronofsky can do with The Wolverine, the most conventional movie he’s ever been attached to. I’m expecting possibly the most weird mainstream blockbuster that I have ever seen. If you’re looking for something bold and exotic, Black Swan is for you. It certainly won’t be for anyone (I imagine those who like it will love it and those who dislike it will hate it), but it’s a bold and brave film. Sure, you’ll feel distinctly uneasy throughout – but that’s part of the point.

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon if you can. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

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10 Responses

  1. Great review, and great analysis on the film’s perspectives on how entertainment industries chew women up and spit them out while objectifying them. It’s interesting to see how much more cutthroat this world is than the last one Aronofsky explored; the brawny young men of The Wrestler aren’t anywhere near as conniving or cunning or scheming as the girls of Black Swan, and maybe there’s a bit of commentary on sexism right there, too.

    I loved Portman. I loved Cassell almost as much, and really admired the way he straddled the line between genius and creep with such aplomb. But most of all Portman; she’s got the award in the bag, or she should.

    For me, this movie made a strong statement about what the craft of a performance artist means to them. Unlike people who participate in other art forms– sculpture, for example, or filmmaking, or writing– there isn’t a product that remains once the artist’s creation is complete. Rather, they build up to this one fleeting moment in time in which they experience artistic nirvana– and then it’s over. So Nina basically puts herself through the ringer just for that one momentary rush of euphoria, which I find beautiful even if the journey up to that point is so horrific.

    • Yep, I’m actually looking forward to returning to this film, without having the same sense of impending doom (because I’ll know where it goes). I reckon I’ll have a better chance of soaking in everything else going on. I think you make a good point about art and the creative process – all for that one moment of being “perfect”. I’m not sure I find the climax “beautiful”, though – if only because I’m convinced it didn’t have to go that way and because nobody really gave two cares about Nina outside her dancing. I can’t divorce the finale from what came before, so the act itself is tied up in the grotesque (without using that in a pejorative sense) build-up. I will, however, concede Aronofsky’s style is “beautiful” on a purely artistic level (divorced from content).

  2. Interesting analysis about a film that seems to be full of great features yet fatally flawed (I haven’t seen it yet). I would have loved to see you return to the question of film noir at the end…..

    • Sorry, Tinky! Kinda got away from me, there. I’ve added a new paragraph, basically stating that Aronofsky borrows a lot of his aesthetic from noir. The mirror motif that Aronofsky uses throughout his film harks back to these films, as does his visual preference for stark black and white contrasts.

  3. nice analysis as always Daz. but im not sure Black Swan even needs it. to me its just a balls out great piece of theatre that is just a bit nuts. not sure aronofsky is trying to say how entertainment industries treat women specifically.

    • Yep, maybe I bring too much to these films, but I find that good films are always the springboard for good discussions. It is, on any aesthetic level, stunning – but I do think the movie did have quite few serious points to make, which would seem preachy in a flat-up drama (but seem less threatening in a movie where a girl dreams of turning into a black swan).

  4. I didn’t see it as anything more than a good psychological horror, but the statement it makes about women in the entertainment industry speaks volumes.

    • Yep. Aronofsky is a skilled film-maker, but there’s a lot going on underneath the fantastically polished exterior.

  5. I have to say, I think you missed the point. So much of the movie is metaphor. It wasn’t commentary on how sexuality is woman’s darker side. It was Nina coming to terms with her sexuality with her seeing it as her dark side. Thomas asked if the dancer wanted to F her because she was supposed to be seducing him. See the movie again. Without the tension of the moment, you might understand it a little bit better.

    • Thanks rbtwinky. I can understand the context of the remark in the scene in question – in that it’s about seduction in the play.

      However, it also fits with the subtext of the film, which is about how the entertainment industry chews up women. It uses the classical assertion that a woman’s dark side is tied to her sexuality (as a man’s dark side is associated with violence – his sexuality is celebrated), without endorsing it. The whole point of using The Black Swan is that it fits the movie’s central thesis about female sexuality and how it’s traditionally perceived. We want a woman to be sexualised – like the Black Swan and how Thomas wants Nina – but only in the most shallow and superficial manner. And then we get a little scared of it. It’s never about satisfying that urge. “Be as sexy as we tell you, but never too sexy – and then you’ll be tarnished by it.” Nina’s mother had to quite to become a mother, her predecessor couldn’t continue when she was all “used up.” Black Swan doesn’t endorse this worldvew, but it dares to examine it.

      So yes, I can understand the remark in the scene, but it also plays to the movie’s theme. It isn’t the only example I cite to support my point, and my argument still stands. Can you think of any piece of classical performance art where Thomas would dare to ask the same of a male cast member?

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