Sunday, 6 February 2011

Black Swan: brutal ballet

Black Swan - psychodrama, horrific, melodramatic, sadomasochistic, misogynistic?  You take your pick with the superlatives when it comes to describing this Oscar-nominated ballet movie.  It's been nominated in 5 categories - best picture, best directing, best cinematography, best actress, and best editing. Last night, my wife and I went to the local cinema to see what all the fuss was about, and I thought I'd share my gut reactions here. I thought this was a brilliant and powerful movie, one I've got to see again.
Natalie Portman in BLACK SWAN; Photo by Niko Tavernise. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight

I best let you know that HERE BE SPOILERS so if you don't want to ruin the plot click away now.

The film centres around Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a ballet dancer in her late 20s, who has lived a sheltered life devoid of much outside of ballet.  She lives with her mother (no mention of a father), played by the creepy over-botoxed Barbara Hershey (as Erica), who sacrificed her own dancing career at the age of 28 to look after her child.  Nina's ambition is two fold: to be 'perfect' but also to match the desires of her mother - to play the lead in a large, well respected production - in this case, the Swan Queen in Swan Lake.  An opportunity arises when the ageing principle ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder), is 'retired' by the producer, Thomas (Vincent Kassel).  However, the world of ballet is competitive and bitchy - friendships are hard to come by for Nina, in a discipline that is marked by jealousy.

Aronofsky's film says much thought the mise-en-scene - it's very claustrophobic, over-bearing and subterranean.  The Sayers' apartment is full of tight corridors flanked with mirrors and shadows; the large rehearsal rooms appear narrow, stale and devoid of natural light; deserted tight hospital corridors; grey toiled cubicles; even a gala function takes place in a gothic mansion with tight frames bearing down on the protagonists.  Seldom do we see wide open spaces in this film, and even when we do its via hand-held camera tracking the back of Nina's head as she makes her way to the rehearsal building - a sense of landscape and perspective is purposefully denied as the cloistered world (and mental state) of the protagonist encroaches.  Nina's ambition to succeed in the role causes her great consternation as she struggles to respond to the demands of Thomas.  Her lack of life-skills outside the world of ballet means she has a limited repository of experiences to draw upon, in rising to the challenges. Her quest for perfection in ballet has meant that she has sacrificed much we take for granted.

Nina's bedroom is that of a pre-pubescent child: pink, filly, and covered with stuffed animals - perfectly reflecting her innocence and sexual naivety. This virginal innocence is perfectly fitted to the role of the White Swan, yet Nina is not the automatic choice for the passionate Black Swan role that comes with the part. Throughout the course of the plot Nina is encouraged by her lecherous producer, to 'let go', find herself, give over to her sexual urges.  He insists she masturbate in order to overcome her inhibitions. He forces himself upon her in a later scene only to walk out on her with the pithy put down 'That was me seducing you' when it's clear she is incapable of being seductive herself.

The film shows Nina is capable of perfection (at least in regards to form), but this comes at a cost - it's not natural nor sensuous, and it gets in the way of artistic expression.  Thomas seems to want the virgin and the whore, the latter of which Nina is seemingly incapable of being.  As Nina becomes increasingly obsessed and her descent into madness ensues, events play out on screen which cast her sanity into doubt. In one sequence, after seemingly bonding with a fellow dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), over drinks Nina notices her drink being drugged. The plot switches to a nightclub scene with smoke, strobes and distorted/reverbed music where Nina and Lily are partying. One jump cut later and Nina is kissing a stranger - disorientated she makes her way into the street to be joined in a taxi by Lily.  They end up in Nina's bedroom and sleeping together, only for Nina to awaken and find no trace of Lily with the bedroom door looked from within.

This film is also very visceral. Throughout the film the camera dwells on the trussed up feet of the dancers; going so far as to focus, somewhat sadistically, on the swollen toes and damaged nails of Nina.  Several sequences in the take a sadistic pleasure in borrowing from the generic codes of horror and torture porn movies. The sound design is superb - several times in the film I was conscious of the off camera diegetic audio coming from over my right shoulder just before a fast transition or jump cut would take place.  The nightclub sequence, though short, reminded me of the disorientation that can occur on the dancefloor, when engulfed in sound and darkness. The fingernail cutting sequences seemed to overlay audio from a butchers table or from a guillotine, exaggerating the sense of fear and panic associated with the act.

However, the film is full of mixed messages.  The misogyny of the movie is there for all to see - in order for any women to succeed it must cost them dearly (Nina takes her own life, Beth steps out into traffic, Erica sacrifices her career, etc).  Some of the sacrifices they make are physically damaging - Nina's feet, diaphragm, back and legs all take a hit.  Some of the sacrifices go beyond the physical: Nina loses her grip on reality.  She visits the woman she succeeded in hospital (Beth) only to witness self-mutilation at the hands of nail file, which then Nina finds in here own hand. Did Nina stab Beth or was it all a figment of her psychosis? These are but a few of the several moments (as I've outlined) where Nina's perception of events are unreliable.

The movie, like the plots of many operas and ballets, seeks to punish women. Like Swan Lake, Tosca, Giselle, Carmen and Madam Butterfly several women in the film who seek their desires are punished for attempting to achieve them.  Nina's journey is a clear parallel of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake who eventually takes her own life.  It's difficult to say whether this film is a critique of this trope or not. If it is then the label of misogyny is misplaced.  Much of the film seems to undermine the pursuit of perfection - several times we are shown scenes of bulimia as Nina goes to the bathroom to be sick in order to stay underweight, the refusal of cake, the lack of desire to go for food with Lily, etc - by portraying these sequences as normal parts of life when they are anything but (suffering for perfection?). The characet of Thomas comes across as both lecherous and odious - yet his vision shapes Nina's?

I think Debra Cash illustrates the problems of the film's supposed misogyny best when she said,
It’s a film about a masochist seen through the eyes of a sadist. Black Swan could be a textbook demonstration of what academics refer to as the male gaze—with a pretty young thing poked and dismembered under a misogynist lens. Aronofsky’s fable portrays female powerlessness on every level—youth, friendship, collegiality, retirement, motherhood.
Aronofsky has made a film that takes a certain degree of pleasure in breaking its female characters, although to label the director a sadist is perhaps heavy-handed. If this wasn't done for a reason other than to take pleasure in that violence then I think we have a problem. When dealing with the role of women, the film is ambiguous at best, and it refuses to take an easy kop out.  I prefer to think that this unrelenting movie is trying to get us to look beyond the story and is asking us to think structurally and holistically about cinematic pleasure and patriarchy. This film doesn't seem to be playing with conventions in an ironic sense - it seems to be drawing our attention to a problem.

In one take on the movie, Judith Schutz points to the broader societal expectations which inform the film:
What is being expressed in Black Swan ... is female self-hatred in the face of societal expectations of what female perfection should be. Impossibly thin. Totally self-controlled. Beautiful. Accomplished. Envied. Adored. And as the fate of fallen ballerina Beth Macintyre (played by Wynona Rider) shows, even if you have, through years of hard work, attained these qualities, you cannot hold on to them for long; and once you have lost them, you will inevitably become an object of horror, derision, and pity. Achieving perfection in her last dance, Nina herself has no choice but to die, not because she is mad, but because the other alternative is unthinkable. Her last words are telling: "I was perfect." 
These final words ring hollow when set against Thomas' earlier claim that 'Perfection isn't about control, it's about letting go' and Nina certainly lets go as she lies dead on the stage.

In many ways, Black Swan reminded me more of Fight Club than The Wrestler (a movie many have claimed is its companion piece).  The unreliable narrator of that movie dealt with his own masculine crisis by creating a perfect alter ego for himself, before the film ends with a rejection of that construct.  In Black Swan, it is patriarchal culture which fosters an imagined perfect femininity that Nina strives for, but is unable to achieve - precisely because the 'perfection' is artificial and unobtainable.  The only way out is death?  It is this denouement which worries me more than anything else, especially as Nina's final claim that she'd been faking all along and that she achieved perfection seems so bleak.

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