Thursday, June 5, 2014

Review: Black Swan

I think the Sassy Gay Friend summed this film up best when he said: “go immediately to a theatre so you too can understand what it’s like to be uncomfortable for an hour and fifteen minutes.”

Yeah, this is a really difficult film to watch, and it leaves you feeling uncomfortable long after its conclusion. You probably know the story by now: twenty-eight year old ballet dancer Nina is desperate to land the part of the swan queen in her company’s latest production of Swan Lake, but is unsure about how to achieve this. According to the sleazy director Thomas Leroy, she’s perfect for the role of the white swan, but lacks the assertiveness and sensuality of the black. Nina becomes so consumed with her quest for perfection (which is doomed to fail considering the black swan calls for a sense of imperfection) that her mind and body start to throw out clear signals that she’s had enough.


And this is essentially what we end up watching: a young woman’s prolonged mental breakdown as she’s torn between the classic Madonna/Whore dichotomies. On the one hand she’s a “sweet girl” who still lives with her mother in a room full of stuffed animals and a ballerina music box, on the other she’s being forcibly driven into the role of the black swan, where she’s intensely uncomfortable at having her prolonged sexual awakening forced upon her. Obviously she can’t be both Madonna and Whore, just as she can’t please her overbearing mother and her forceful director – and the saddest thing is that not for a second of the film’s duration do we get the sense that it ever occurs to Nina to simply please herself.

As she struggles to keep up with the demands of the role, Nina is reminded of her restrictions by the constant presence of Lily (Mila Kunis), a gifted new dancer who personifies the freedom and sexuality of the black swan.

I knew going in that the whole thing was a dramatization of a mental breakdown, though I wonder if I would have twigged to this if I’d been completely unaware of the film’s intentions. It seems very obvious early on as to where everything is headed, indicated almost immediately by Nina’s high-strung behaviour and an early sighting of a doppelganger in the subway, but it would be interesting to know if any first-time viewers thought they were watching a supernatural haunting or an elaborate attempt at gas-lighting instead.

The only thing I wasn’t initially clear on was whether Lily was a real person or a complete construct of Nina’s imagination; as it turns out she was both. That she interacts with other characters is proof of her existence, but there’s clearly a lot of projection going on concerning Nina’s perception of her. Natalie Portman got all the accolades for her performance here, but there’s also something to be said for Mila Kunis’s ability to play several variations of Lily: namely Lily herself, and the Lily that exists in Nina’s overwrought mind.


The film did a lot of interesting things with its colour palette. Obviously Nina is associated strongly with white and pink, whilst Lily (despite her “white” name) leans heavily toward black. Nina’s mother dwells in shades of green, perhaps to denote the envy she holds toward her young, talented, beautiful daughter (it’s established that she herself used to be a ballerina but had to drop out when she got pregnant) and Nina steals red lipstick from Winona Ryder’s dressing room (I can’t remember the character’s name, and yes – Winona Ryder is in this movie) in her bid to be just like her, and someone (Nina herself?) writes “whore” in lipstick on the bathroom mirror.
Likewise, mirrors are everywhere, exemplifying the theme of doppelgangers and the dual role of the swan. There is so much meaning and symbolism, even in the throwaway bits of dialogue, that make you want to watch it again just to pick up on all the details.

But as an ex-dancer myself from way, WAY back there were a couple of things that were a bit silly. First of all, despite Tchaikovsky’s score, almost nothing I saw on stage looks like a performance of Swan Lake. The big deal that the director makes about the difference between the black and white swans is really not that big a deal at all (if he was so gung-ho about the stylistic differences in playing each part, why not simply cast BOTH girls).


Likewise, all the clomping of the toe shoes is nothing like what ballerinas are supposed to sound like while wearing them, and that Lily was being measured for her understudy costume the day before the performance was ridiculous. Oh, and at one point she turns up to ballet class and declines to warm up. Haha. No.

The film encompasses a complex character study, but I think the story would have benefitted from at least one scene in which we get to see Nina enjoying the art of ballet. As I mentioned earlier, the saddest thing about the story is the fact that Nina never once considers doing something – anything! – for her own gratification, and for someone whose life is so subsumed by her craft she seems to derive no pleasure from it whatsoever. Every scene in which she dances has Natalie Portman wearing a strained, painful expression. There should have been just one scene in which we see her in a more relaxed state, enjoying the sensation of movement and dancing for the sake of it. At the very least, it would have offset the tragedy of her presumed death to know that on some level, she was doing what she loved.

Oh, but look who else was in this!

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Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Princess Mithian! And as it turns out, she’s the only character who seems to be genuinely, unambiguously nice. Aha, I love seeing familiar faces in minor roles.

But it just goes to show how incredibly difficult it must be to break into show-business: that Janet Montgomery could have leading roles in various British dramas, but the moment she enters Hollywood, she’s reduced to a speaking extra. Yikes.

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