Monday, December 13, 2010

Black Swan (2010)

A toast to the exquisite Nina Sayers...

First, I must say that my expectations for this film were through the roof. Being the fanatical follower of Aronofsky that I am, I expected him to outdo himself, which is quite a tall order considering the divine brilliance of his filmography. I also wanted to marvel at the perfect beauty of Natalie Portman. I wanted to cry for her and wish for death in exchange for her salvation. I wished that Vincent Cassel's screen presence would match that of his breakthrough role (as Vinz in Mathieu Kassovitz' La Haine). I wanted to appreciate the sex scene (between Portman and Mila Kunis), despite my painful memories from Requiem for a Dream. I wanted a film that would grab my guts and twist them. I wanted to feel human again by witnessing the umpteenth fall of Icarus. And although I asked for the moon, the film still blew me away.

Nina is a tragic character trapped by
mirrors and one unrelenting camera.

Black Swan is a work of sublime beauty, a moving ode to ill-preserved innocence and the earthy nature of our fragile bodies. It is an obsessive portrait of obsession. Personally, I was so touched that I couldn't stop thinking about the film. And I still can't. The first screening I went to was at 22h15 on a Saturday night. In the subway afterwards, I closed my eyes and heard Tchaikovsky's ballet in loud notes laced with loving memories of the exquisite Nina Sayers. In bed, I dreamt of the ballerina all night long, then woke up to her forced, yet gorgeous smile. I danced and sulked to the bathroom where I sang the final/fatal bits of melody from the film while showering. I got goosebumps just thinking about this, or that scene. My hands were unstable with heart-felt emotions and I couldn't shake the images of Nina that will probably be haunt me forever. I was struck with an immense desire that had only one cure: to go see the movie a second time. So I packed my bags and took the subway downtown for the 13h30 representation. That time, I cried and felt goosebumps even harder. I was turning into a swan, a very sad but very happy swan at the same time. I was very sad with the fate of Nina, whom I consider one of the best screen heroines of all times, but at the same time, I was thankful for Aronofsky's genius, which has unleashed the true potential of my most loved Natalie. After that second screening, I danced and shook even more, then planned a third screening for Tuesday (when tickets are cheap). What's most likely to happen in the following weeks is that I will cram in as many screenings as my schedule and tight budget allow because I can't imagine a more poignant sight than Nina's final transformation on the big screen. Tonight, after work, after hours of daydreaming filled with heartbreaking notes and slick, caressing hands, I rushed to the National Library in order to rent Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. I faced only a locked door. Then some bum came to me and plainly explained: "Library's closed on Monday. Didn't you know that?" Actually, I didn't. And I was mortified... only to regain my passion a second later. "Fuck it", I said, then rushed to the music store where I bought my own copy for a whopping thirty bucks. Still, despite the hours past and the money spent, I haven't (and have no desire) to shake off the indelible memories of Black Swan that are etched in my heart.

Black Swan is the story of Nina, a dedicated, but naive ballerina who is obsessed with perfection. When invited to audition for the role of both swans in the bold and daring revisiting of Swan Lake from shady, but brilliant choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), she tries her best but fails. Being the innocent pearl that she is, she cannot embody the seductive black swan. Devastated with her rejection, she approaches Leroy who then confirms that he only sees the white swan in her. A beautiful and fearful figure, Nina is, and incapable of anything other than perfection. So she shyly lets go and tries to leave Leroy's office, only to be cornered by the suave gentleman who can't help but wonder what she was trying to achieve with her visit. Leroy kisses her with unrepentant passion as the womanizer that he is. Nina lets her guard down at first, then bites his lip to evade his manly grasp. "You bit me. I can't believe you bit me!", says the puzzled master. Then Nina flees, but she has shown just enough blackness for Leroy to cast her as the glorious swan queen. You see, there is a dark self in Nina that can be awakened with effort. But suffice it to say that this blackness will soon overwhelm the innocent girl and lead her to madness and death.

Beautiful but murderous: the black swan.

Aronofsky often stated that Black Swan is a companion piece, a feminine version if you will, of The Wrestler. And although this is entirely true (both films' endings are carbon copies), it is also a companion piece to Satoshi Kon's psychological thriller, Perfect Blue. This comparison is not innocent as Aronofsky is an avowed admirer of the Japanese animation kingpin. He made an hommage to Perfect Blue in Requiem for a Dream by duplicating the "underwater scream scene" wherein the helpless heroine expresses her feelings to no avail as there is no one to listen to her voiceless complaint. In Black Swan, he cultivates the idea of a dark alter-ego by first duplicating the subway "mirror image" scene in which the two heroines of the two films, Mima and Nina, first glimpse at their reflection and start to wonder about its depth. This strongly foreshadows things to come as both girls will soon be divided in two. You see, Mima and Nina are sisters not only in name; they also share the same ordeal. Both start as innocent and immaculate virgins, but soon become highly sexualized by opportunistic men in order to further their careers. Their schizoid split happens because of the immense pressure they face from the industry, as well as their somewhat brutal awakening to sexuality. But whereas Mima is surrounded by the beastly otakus and perverted TV producers from Japan (Perfect Blue works nicely as a critique of the Japanese pop idol phenomenon), girly Nina is surrounded by emancipated (and sexually voracious) women that she also comes to see as dark doubles. Mila Kunis' Lily is one such double and a very confusing one at that. Her sexual appetite at once scares and entices Nina who comes to fantasize about a particularly passionate and life-affirming cunnilingus performed by her tantalizing twin. Both girls are skillful dancers and both lack what the other has, namely perfection and charm. Their main difference is that between the two swans: sexual emancipation. Whereas the steps of the fearful white swan have the flawless, but frigid quality of Nina's, the black swan's perverted rotations are those of Lily. To complicate things, another slightly more ambiguous character is added to the roster: Winona Ryder's subdued but wonderful Beth, the dying star. And another black swan. Her character is as impulsive and sexualized as Lily's, especially where Thomas is concerned. Thus, by accepting the role, Nina must "fight" Beth and Lily, but she must also become them. That's one of the contradictions that will lead her to madness. You see, by playing both swans, Nina must remain what she is, namely an angelic perfectionnist, but she must also transform into something she is not: a lustful and impulsive woman. In the end, she must kill her innocence in order to finalize the transformation. Her brutal sexual awakening allows her to become what she needs to be onstage, but it destroys what she was offstage, an angel.

The film tackles this issue head-on by using Leroy's character not as a pervy obstacle to Nina, but as a dynamic force in her transformation, at once being her mentor and love interest. It is he who encourages the young woman to "touch herself", to "live a little". And God are we thankful for that. It may seem exploitative to some, but the masturbation scene is actually very poignant and carried out brilliantly by a courageous actress. This sexual awakening, the blissful moment when Nina is spread frog-legged on her bed with a hand in her panties, squirming with the pleasure of self satisfaction is also tainted with childish shyness. Not from the massive audience watching the film, but from the presence of her sleeping mother in the chair next to the bed. Apparently, mom has decided to watch over her precious daughter by spending the night at her bedside. And so, when Nina's eyes scan the room, they catch a glimpse of the embarrassing matriarch, then she reverts to her sleeping beauty state and once more, she becomes innocent. But innocence only lasts for a time, as does beauty, to whom innocence is a mirror image. In the end, Nina is forced to become something she isn't in order to achieve perfection. She must embody at once the beautiful innocence with which she so rightfully portrays the white swan and the vengeful jealousy which will make her the black swan, and incidentally kill her. It will come to no surprise to Aronofsky fans to know that, as the tragic heroine that she is, the beautiful Nina dies at the end. And you are supposed to cry about it. You're supposed to prefer death to the vision of the heroine's fate. Which is quite easy, considering Portman's genius take on the role and her perfect character's perfect exposition. Let me make a quick segway here, and come back to Japan. It is said in the land of the rising sun that to make a truly worthy literary heroine, you must make the male readership want to die for her. I know I would gladly die for the life of Nina and so, I believe her to be, and always will believe her to be one of the best, most moving female characters of all film history. She is both Lilian Gish in Broken Blossoms and Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, but also a rightful heiress to the tragic women of Carl Dreyer. She represents sacrificied beauty as her entire life seems planned by others (her mother and her choreographer), manipulated if you will, by the gods above. Her dramatic potential is otherworldly and it is perfectly amplified by the brazen music from the Swan Lake ballet.

This here is the role that Portman was born to play. Fuck that V for Vendetta and Star Wars bullshit. Natalie Portman is Nina Sayers. Or at least, she does a job so marvelous at it, that her performance will rip through your rib cage and grab your heart never to let go again. As is usual in Aronofsky films, the camera is really, really close to the protagonist. Too close for comfort, one could say. But it is only through his invading camera that he can reveal characters as poignant and touching as Nina. Of course, this represents a huge strain on the actors, and it seems that only the best can survive his harsh treatment. Well, the best is right under your eyes. And I always knew it. Sure, Mickey Rourke gave an Oscar-worthy performance as the battered wrestler, but he couldn't truly capture our hearts. He was a sorry character trying to redeem a life of selfishness and he died a glorious, but eventually lonesome death whereas Nina dies an unneccessary, that is to say, a truly tragic and heart-breaking death. We come to love her so very much, with her childish bonne humeur and addictive smile, that we can only be devastated as she enters the nether realm of humanity and starts losing her beautiful white feathers who all turn to black. We die a thousand deaths with Nina's. We see beauty broken and killed over a pathetic, and unachievable dream of perfection. The protagonist's most beautiful and admirable quality, her innocence, is soiled by the makers of dreams that would like her to be something entirely other than she is, a woman, when she is just a child. That said, Nina is a tragic heroine of classical mythos. She is an archetype of sacrificial beauty. She is one to stir the passion of the audience into violent despair and draw painful tears from anyone who has witnessed her untimely fall. But she wouldn't be anything close if it were not for Aronofsky's prying camera or Portman's incredible talent. Her tears are bittersweet. The early ones, following her selection as the swan queen, are realistic and touching. The later ones, when she finds herself at the threshold of death, are truly devastating. The translucent drips wet her cheeks so she covers them with heavy white makeup. She carries on despite the intimate knowledge of approaching demise. She accepts death for something that isn't even perfection. She is tragic beauty incarnated in the flesh and framed by a camera that is at once loving and fearsome in its attention to the minute details of her broken anatomy.

Wipe a tear for Nina's swan song

The interplay of mirror images in the film is such that not only is Nina divided in two competing halves, but every character from the plot also assumes a corresponding role from the Swan Lake ballet. Thus Leroy becomes the prince choosing his bride, which he does more than metaphorically by forcing ex-muse Beth to retire and flaunting his new flame, Nina, for all the "wolves" to see. Lily is the dark swan, vying for the prince's love (and his dick). The characters are in perpetual motion, in a dance if you will, and their relationships evolve accordingly. Be it the ambiguous relationship between Leroy and Lily or the dramatic transformation of Nina, every scene is amplified by a glorious score by Clint Mansell who largely draws from Tchaikovsky to create something of almost otherworldly dramatic intensity. The final scene, in which Nina literally transforms into the black swan, is fueled both by the unbearable intensity of Portman's performance and the obsessive soundtrack that launches the film into orbit. Actually, it becomes more than a film at this point. It becomes a Greek tragedy, an epic ballet amplified by the power of a camera so clingy that it captures every graceful step and every mood to deform the swan queen's angelic figure. The camera also captures, as it does so well in Pi and Requiem for a Dream, the evolving madness of the character by way of impressionistic framing and tracking. The epic drama from the scenario, the raw power of Tchaikovsky's music, the intensity of Portman's performance as well as the technical mastery of the medium by director Aronofsky, all these elements blend in such a perfect way as to create one of the greatest moments in cinematic history. And I'm not kidding. I've seen films. But never have I been so moved, so devastated by a single scene. Sometimes, I cry just thinking about it, at work or on the street. It's just that powerful.

I don't like to use the word 'perfect' and I don't believe that Black Swan is perfect. Upon the fourth viewing, you start to see the film as merely a mathematical addition of symbolic personality splits. But you also continue to notice things you hadn't seen before. This is a simple, but layered film that offers a lot to the dedicated observer. It might be too obvious at times, especially in its use of mirrors and atmospheric music, as well as its frequent resort to some cheaper horror film mechanics. But in the end, the sheer dramatic power of the film overwhelms all of its (tiny) flaws. It shows you Portman at her best (I support her all the way to the podium on Oscar night), but also Aronofsky at his best (I support him all the way to the podium on Oscar night). His intrusive camera, impressionistic framing and editing as well as the inclusion of orchestral music for heightened dramatic effect are all used at their best here to create his best film. Truly... it is all a humbling achievement.

4,5/5 Bored with the dark, moonless sky of American cinema, the gods have forced the collision of Tchaikovsky, Polanski, Aronofsky and Satoshi Kon to create the brighest star ever to grace the eye. Atop that star thrones the beautiful swan queen whose tragic memory will haunt all men until the end of times.