Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Black Swan

Aronofsky does it again. This time with greater grip, passion and spectacle. The Black Swan, in all its intensity took me on a journey of dangerous ambition, hateful competition, and disturbing mental trauma seen through the eyes of the victim - a ballerina.

Who would think the petite form of the ballerina could be turned into a bloody nightmare that haunts, disrupts and even kills? Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman is torn between her most private insecurities and her ambition to get the lead role of the Swan Queen. Personifying the conflict of good and evil in Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake”, Nina needs to fight the demons in her head that make her lose her mind. She sees competition in Lily (Mila Kunis), who has the qualities that she lacks, the sexuality and seductiveness that is required to play the black swan. Nina is a perfectionist, but only in technique. She can carry off the role of the white swan beautifully, but lacks the emotion and spontaneity that will carry the character of the black swan.

The pressure only mounts with Nina’s mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), who dreams of her daughter’s success, and lives to see her become a great dancer. She is strict when it comes to discipline and performance. Her character also has hints of dark shades right in the very early stages of the film. Although she acts as Nina’s support system, she strangely also drives her to desperation and fear. The other voice that increases Nina’s need to be perfect is her dance teacher Thomas Leroy (Vincent Casel), who with his autocratic hand, pushes her to bring out what she lacks most - her sexuality. He gives her exercises that will help her discover herself and get more comfortable in her skin. Nina simply does not know how to handle this. How will she free her mind and repressed body, amidst the leering eyes of her mother who allows her no freedom?

Nina’s darkest fears translate into a living nightmare where she confronts what she sees the way her mind perceives it. Her world overturns when her dance takes over the air she breathes, the movements she feels and the voices that she hears. She sees herself in everything that haunts her. Her face becomes her fear, when it reflects itself at the most unexpected moments. Will she become the force that drives her to perfection? At what cost? And whose?

The movie is replete with Aronofsky style camera angles and movements all the way. His signature style of walking along with the character in quick successive steps especially reminded me of his earlier film Requiem for a Dream. Like how Jennifer Connelly leaves the apartment and walks out into the lift and out into the rain, Nina too, after a horrific sight, walks devastated towards us, as the camera moves with equal pace and urgency as her. This I find a unique experiment in Aronofsky’s cinematography. Also in this movie, the camera swirling and dancing around Nina as she finds her way across the performing space lends to a spectacular visual treat.

The soundtrack is one of the most dominant forces that lead the film. The background score by Clint Mansell takes the movie to a level that speaks the turmoil of Nina. Like in all other Aronofsky films, Mansell has delivered the best, bringing out the theme, the tune of emotions and the physical moods of the characters.

In a mix of genres, the Black Swan hits you somewhere but you are not sure where. It merges what you see and what you believe to have seen. It takes storytelling to a different level where the character’s quest to prove herself becomes the biggest threat when it overtakes the stability of her mind. It wipes out all doubts of unlikely possibilities because what our heart feels may not always be what our mind sees. It is a complex game of reality and dreams, an exploration into the deepest and darkest abysses of oneself and the fight to overcome the numbing pain. Like The Wrestler, here too there is the passion for a career, and beating all odds to find true happiness in doing what one loves most. But not without conquering a war that will take everything out of you, even your sanity.

Not everything needs to be explained with a practical reason. Neither does this ending. Watch The Black Swan for its beauty, tragedy, intrigue and exhilarating passion.


  1. Hmm!

    Not just writing the film story but I would love it if you break the film into its grammar and thematic elements. You do interpret the story deeply, so give it a shot :)

    Some points to think over:
    Is Aronofsky an Auteur? And do you see something, a common thread may be, from PI to The Black Swan? Is that thread a part of Aronofsky's life as well?

    "Her world overturns when her dance takes over the air she breathes," -- a very lovely line, almost too good to be part of a review. It should have been part of a fiction writing.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Prateek.
    I think Aronofsky is definitely an auteur, considering his unique way of storytelling, all his films dealing with a conflict of a character. Pi, The Fountain, The Wrestler and The Black Swan all explore deep fears and the fight against it. Requiem for a Dream traces the lives of several characters and their devastating lives that they need to come to terms with. So his films deal with how the characters are looking for a redemption.

    I'm not sure if the thread is part of his life as well, but would love to hear from your thoughts as well. Every director I'm sure has some part of himself in the films he makes, and that is what makes it an original piece.

  3. I like your deduction of the film :) It's what I felt too. Black Swan does put you in a spot - a place where you're no sure whether to appreciate the artistic, visceral representations in the film or to criticize the indulgence that comes along with it.

    I'll tell you where I think the film flaws. And I would love for both Prateek and you to give me your thoughts on this.

    To me, the opposing depictions of black and white were much in your face. If it wasn't the regular cliched depictions of a good girl vs a naughty girl the only other way they brought about this comparison is through the performing arts- you know, the fragile moves as a white swan and seductive moves as a black swan. Both of these are predictable, but visually pleasing nonetheless. I'm not saying these could be eliminated, because they're necessary in a film that revolves around ballet, but I'm saying another means to show the comparison could have been used.

    Also, The development of Portman's character from what she was, to what she becomes- for various psychological reasons, seemed a bit ruptured, and not in a mysterious way. It was hurried at one point and stagnant at another. It seemed like too much effort was being put into making the film symbolic, which is necessary but then the film was left neither here nor there.

    For these reasons, I felt the film was a tad bit overhyped this year - what with the oscar nominees and just people going gaga over the look of the film. Black Swan has a enchanting soundtrack, ornamental choreography, unique cinematography - much like you've mentioned, also Portman's depiction of a troubled but beautiful ballet dancer, which is almost down to a T - but that shouldn't be mistaken for a flawless film?


  4. Thanks for your detailed observations, Swetha:) The Black Swan, I believe has become cinematically appealing because of its treatment and constructive elements. It has probably got all the attention because of the glamour of mixed genres, where horror, thriller-like-moments coupled with an intense performance by the actor lent to a liking by a large audience. So in terms of cinematic language, the film scores.

    Having said that, let me address the flaws that you have brought up. Yes, the film does address a good v/s bad (read sinister) girl, but is it just about that? Aronofsky's primary fodder is Tchaikovsky's historic ballet, Swan Lake. He tries to show good v/s evil through Nina where evil is shown through her eyes only. We don't see what Lily is really like. First flaw. It is only 'perceived' evil. Secondly, he has trivialised Tchaikovsky's ballet of its greatness and instead made it into a girl fight, where on account of being a "ballerina" she is faced with traumatic experiences in the pressure to perform. So the use of the music composer's piece itself is questionable. But on the flip side, because the Swan Queen has these two sides to her, and Nina can only pull off one perfectly, the film intelligently uses this need for perfect duality as the basis for Nina's agony, destroying the beauty and grace of a ballerina that we often perceive it to be.

    About Nina's development as a character being ruptured, I think it was deliberately done to foster inconsistency. Her conflicting mind constantly enabled and disabled her from realizing the skin of the Black Swan. It is a growth that is erratic, that gets stronger or weaker with confusion. Towards the end, however, she is driven to a point of violent realization and this is where the troubling mind becomes devastatingly content.

  5. The redemptive end of the transformation is enchanting, Portman has done a great job, but for me the ruptured character growth wasn't about inconsistency as much as it was about being unexplained. Under normal circumstances that can work wonders, but like I said, much was left to symbology which is this case didn't work.

    It just seemed to jump here and there without really explaining the jumps, and once you feel the need for an explanation - there is symbology that has failed :)

    Anyway, these are my observations and they're pretty subjective I guess. The black swan is a pretty picture, and it does have it's strong points but I also feel that reviewers can sometime go overboard with praises just because of an Aronofsky-Portman brand, and that too a movie about a Tchaikovsky ballet. You get the drift :)

    Good review, Zulfiya!

  6. Like I mentioned in my review, not everything needs to be explained with a practical reason. Sometimes its best left unexplained. Our opinions can differ, as you said it is subjective. I personally have a liking to absurd/obscure/unexplained narratives.

    But yes, as you rightly pointed out, the package is alluring and attracts praise because of it.

  7. Aronofsky is certainly amongst the more accomplished directors of his generation. But I don't think he can be considered a true auteur yet. While he does enjoy the luxury of being able to make films that are not typically 'Hollywood', I think the most telling factor that supports the notion that Aronofsky is not an auteur is the style of David Fincher. Both of them have very similar styles of storytelling. You pick up any of their films - Pi, Fight Club, The Game, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Zodiac, etc - all of them could have been directed just as well, and just as similarly, by the other. From the generation of filmmakers who arrived on the Hollywood scene in the 90s, I believe the only true auteur is Quentin Tarantino.

    Coming to Black Swan, I really liked the film. In theme, the film is indeed quite similar to Ingmar Bergman's Persona, a powerful psychological drama. But Black Swan doesn't try to disguise itself as a drama. Aronofsky wants his film to belong clearly to the Horror/Thriller genre, and he uses the tropes of these genres very effectively to make an engaging film. He clearly understands the difference between writing a book and making a film, and his understanding of the cinematic medium is what truly makes Black Swan enchanting. However, the film does suffer on a few counts. The symbolism in the film is very, very obvious. The colours, the shot composition, the manner in which the actors have been directed - all of these points could have been handled with a little subtlety. But then again, this is a studio financed Hollywood film, so some of these elements will creep in to make the film appeal to a wider audience. All in all, Black Swan, in my opinion, is a winner.