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Black Swan

[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. This is Part II of a discussion of Darren Aronofsky. Part I, covering his first four films, can be found here. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]

Ed Howard: Jason, you ended the first half of our conversation about Darren Aronofsky by wondering both where the director would go next after his first four films and which Aronofsky would be represented in Black Swan, his fifth feature. Throughout that exchange, we mostly divided Aronofsky's career in half, considering Pi and Requiem for a Dream as blunt, bleak rehearsals for the more fully realized explorations of thematically similar territory in The Fountain and The Wrestler. So I suppose it's appropriate that for the first half of Black Swan, I found myself thinking I was watching another Requiem for a Dream, while the second half ventured into the richer, deeper territory of Aronofsky's more recent career. It's appropriate, too, that the film itself is so concerned with halving and doubling, with mirrors and doppelgangers, built as it is around a production of the ballet Swan Lake in which the dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) is asked to play the dual role of the Swan Queen and her dark rival, the titular Black Swan.

It's a fascinating film, and especially so in the context of Aronofsky's career, because it feels like such a consolidation of everything he's been exploring and dealing with in his other work. I haven't read any reviews of Black Swan yet, but I feel pretty confident predicting that at least a few of them will call it "The Wrestler in ballet slippers," or something similar, and they will be more or less accurate. As in The Wrestler and his other films, Aronofsky is exploring his protagonist's singleminded pursuit of her obsession, in this case Nina's pursuit of dancing perfection. As in The Wrestler, Aronofsky is recycling familiar cinematic clichés, drawing on the backstage movie's tropes of domineering mothers, neurotic stars, ambitious rivals, aging hasbeens, and predatory/sexual relationships between male directors and female performers. In working with these clichés, however, Aronofsky reinvests them with vitality and freshness through the raw intensity of his filmmaking.

Nina wants, desperately and obsessively, to be "perfect," though the film itself eschews this purity for grime, chaos and fragmentation, mocking Nina's desire to be perfect by running her through an increasingly harrowing gauntlet of real and imagined trials and terrors. Black Swan begins in methodical, observational realism and slowly morphs, like a woman becoming a swan, into a psychological horror film, a dizzying fever dream that haunts the audience and the central character alike. I'm still wrestling with this dense film, and I'm sure we'll delve more into its substance and its connections to Aronofsky's oeuvre throughout this conversation. But one thing I'm already sure of is that I can't forget this film; it's provocative and viscerally exciting and visually compelling. I haven't totally resolved my feelings about this film or its effect on me, but I'm already sure that it has affected me.

Jason Bellamy: I suppose this is only appropriate, given Black Swan's mirroring motif, but reading your account felt like seeing my own feelings reflected back at me. I couldn't agree more. Like you, I saw traces of Aronofsky's earlier and later films. Like you, I noted the multiple clichés and archetypes. Like you, I'm still struggling to make sense of it all—cerebrally and emotionally. But most important of all, like you I feel affected; and I'm grateful for that. Maybe it was all that White Swan/Black Swan split-personality stuff, but as Black Swan ended I found myself confronted by two outwardly identical but attitudinally opposed thoughts: "That was something... (?)" and "That was something... (!)." In other words, I can't yet tell you exactly what Black Swan is, exactly what it means to me, or exactly when the film is genius and when it's trite, but I can tell you that it got under my skin, that it's powerful in sum, if not incessantly, and that I expect its spell will linger.

Part of the reason I'm drunk on the film while still struggling to identify its taste has something to do with the film's hallucination-filled narrative. Black Swan is no extreme Lynchian mindfuck, in the sense that its broad themes are always easily understood, and by the end there's very little mystery left, as if there was never any mystery in the first place, but the film includes so many wild shifts and U-turns that experiencing it for the first time is like trying to balance on a seesaw in a windstorm. Over the second half of the film I was constantly recalibrating my understanding of what was happening: "OK, this scene isn't real, but the last one was... no, wait, now this scene is imagined, so the previous two must have been genuine... or, wait, hang on, maybe all of the last three scenes were hallucinations... but, then again..." Aronofsky is putting us into the troubled mind of Portman's Nina, who right up until the final moment never knows what to believe. And so Black Swan is appropriately discombobulating, even while it's thematically direct. But having said that, I think the main reason for my dizziness is because I'm astonished at how familiar the film feels throughout, only to leave me feeling as if I've never seen anything quite like it.

You already listed off several of the film's broad backstage drama clichés—domineering mothers, neurotic stars, etc.—but equally prevalent are the distinctive Aronofsky flourishes: a predilection for ghastliness that recalls Pi and Requiem for a Dream; a black-and-white (darkness and lightness) motif that recalls The Fountain (this time in reverse); the numerous follow-shots that recall The Wrestler; a general fondness for centered closeups that recalls all of his films; and so on. Maybe I'll stumble upon something later, but at the moment I can't think of anything about Black Swan that feels particularly new within Aronofsky's oeuvre, never mind within all of cinema. And yet somehow Black Swan feels so distinct, so individual. Am I alone in that feeling? If not, can you explain that?

Black Swan

EH: You're not alone, and I think Black Swan feels fresh, not so much for its individual elements as for its synthesis. As you say, Black Swan exists within the continuity of Aronofsky's career, and yet there's something bold and loose and appealingly ragged about the way Aronofsky mashes together his thematic and stylistic concerns here. Part of it is the film's destabilizing approach to reality; Aronofsky's first three films frequently diverged into fantasy, or blended the real and the unreal, but never so startlingly as here, where Nina often seems to be leaping jarringly from one form of hallucination into another. There's also the fact that Aronofsky increasingly seems like a realist director who can't help rendering fantasy and illusion with a realist's eye for detail. When Nina picks at her skin and, at one point, suddenly peels off a whole strip of flesh from around her fingernail, it's as viscerally disturbing as Harry's festering needle wound in Requiem for a Dream; when it's revealed as fantasy an eyeblink later, it doesn't make it feel any less tangible. The Wrestler aside, Aronofsky's films, and especially Black Swan, are strikingly concrete approaches to the abstract and the internal. Aronofsky renders Nina's unstable dreamworld as a physical place, which only makes the sudden intrusions of Nina's imagined horrors all the more disorienting.

The film opens with a hazy sequence of Nina dancing the role of the Swan Queen, swathed in white light in the center of a dark space. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a dream, and Aronofsky follows it with a sequence of Nina waking up, contrasting the surreal qualities of the dream against the slow dawning of natural light on Nina's pale face, then focusing on the cracking of the joints in her toes, and the way she languidly stretches her neck, then cuts to her practicing ballet in front of a mirror and enthusing over the pinkness of a grapefruit. This sequence suggests, comfortingly, that the film is making a rigid distinction between the unreality of dreams and the prosaic corporeality of waking life, but in fact no such distinction exists. This film feels real even when its events are obviously surreal; it has that in common with David Lynch, who's an obvious touchstone for Aronofsky here. Black Swan is a sister to Lynch's Mulholland Drive, another film in which professional rivalry leads to lesbian desire, all of it tangled up in narcissism and questions of identity, and all of it heading towards violence, murder, and horror-movie flourishes.

What makes this so interesting is that, despite the film's constant and purposeful confusion of illusion with reality, the film's fantastic imagery is all in service to the deeper themes of identity and ambition. Nina finds doubles everywhere because she's being pulled in so many different directions at once, and because her life is already so full of potential doppelgangers: her controlling mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), who once had a less-than-successful dancing career of her own and now passive-aggressively encourages and demeans her daughter; Beth (Winona Ryder), the aging star whose place Nina is now taking; Lily (Mila Kunis), the rival dancer who is Nina's opposite in so many ways and the obvious Black Swan to Nina's White Swan; and of course the dark, smirking doppelganger who Nina keeps catching glimpses of out of the corner of her eye (Portman again). Over the course of the film, Nina keeps confusing herself with these other selves, and confusing them with one another, so that her rival becomes her lover, who becomes herself, who becomes her mother, who appears briefly as Beth, enraged that Nina is taking on the career she once had and should have kept. The film is such a pulse-pounding rollercoaster ride because it places us so completely into Nina's subjectivity, seeing everything through her eyes, seeing how her intense desire to become a star dancer has made her own identity unstable, fluidly blending into the other women in her life.

Black Swan

JB: That's true, and maybe that hints at another reason this film feels so similar-to-yet-different-from Aronofsky's other films: its preponderance of female characters. Here the roles for Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder and Mila Kunis are relatively small and insignificant—Portman's Nina is the only one whose feelings count— but this is still a female-dominated film, which is a first for Aronofsky, whose previous films maxed out at two semi-substantial female characters each (if that). Now, to be clear, I'm not suggesting that because Black Swan is about a female's experience that the movie is about the Female Experience, because I don't think that's the case. From any other director, sure, I might be inclined to think that Black Swan is a specific metaphor for the metamorphosis from girlhood into womanhood—complete with unrealistic expectations for physical perfection, shame about sexual yearnings and even frustration with sporadic bleeding. But given Aronofsky's body of work, Black Swan strikes me as another film about obsession—one that draws upon those female maturation stereotypes but isn't about them. No doubt, I suspect many women could look at Nina, with her overprotective mother, her stuffed animals on the bed and her ballerina music box, and remember the period of adolescence when the Little Princess identity of childhood no longer aligned with maturing desires (sexual and otherwise). But Black Swan is so much more universal than that, because as much as it's about obsession, it's also about suppression—about bottling up who we are, or who we want to be, or who we could be, in order to meet outward expectations.

We talked about all the ways that Black Swan feels familiar, even recycled, but maybe the thing it does with singular superiority is make emotional suppression palpable. Black Swan achieves this palpability in a number of ways, but the lion's share of the credit must go to Portman. Aronofsky's film is terrifically cast from top to bottom, and we'll get to some of the other performances later, but Portman's turn as Nina is the most remarkable if for no other reason than because it dupes us (or at least me) into believing that when Portman embodies Nina's repressed White Swan that she is acting according to type, when nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe I'm alone here, but I think most of us tend to pigeonhole Portman as some kind of Puritanical spirit, even though her career has defied that image with surprising consistency. Consider that in her first three films—The Professional (1994), Heat (1995) and especially Beautiful Girls (1996)—Portman played a character who was dealing with issues beyond the expected demands of her age. In Closer (2004) she played a conniving stripper. In Wes Anderson's short Hotel Chevalier (2007), she played an emotionally manipulative (ex)girlfriend. Meantime, she's mocked her wholesome image with a bleep-heavy rap on an SNL Digital Short. I could go on. Point is, Inhibited Nina should seem against-type for Portman, yet Portman wears the character so well that it would be easy to take her performance for granted. Throughout Black Swan, Aronofsky often evokes Nina's emotional suppression via the soundtrack, by enhancing the sound of Nina's breathing, or pumping up the intensity of Clint Mansell's score as Nina gives in to her desires, only to take the score away when Nina's self-regulating instinct kicks in. But Aronofksy's most effective technique for evoking emotional suppression is to point his camera at Portman, who through her countenance and posture suggests a woman so bottled-up that at any moment she might explode. It's a sneakily terrific performance.

Black Swan

EH: Yes, Portman is always at the center of this film, much as Mickey Rourke was in The Wrestler, and she responds by delivering a fantastic performance. Even in the early scenes, before we really understand what this character is about, there's something strained and fake about the way she smiles and exclaims happily over a grapefruit breakfast with her mom; the cracks in her personality are so deep that they show even in the most prosaic details of her life. As the film progresses and Nina's grip on reality becomes increasingly tenuous, Portman's tight, neurotic smiles and flustered reactions to the outpourings of her imagination convey the sense of a girl who is genuinely scared of what's inside her, genuinely terrified of loosening her grip on all the emotions and desires she's suppressed for so long. It's this aspect of the film that resonates most strongly with the girl-into-woman theme. It's as though Nina is going through a delayed puberty, having long repressed her desires and her sexuality, probably at the not-so-subtle urging of a mother who obviously feels that her own sexuality—and the child that resulted from it—was a career-ending mistake. Aronofsky enhances this performance by placing the audience into the same position as Portman's Nina, unsure of what's real and what's not, unable to get a steady foothold within the flow of fantasy and reality.

The film begins to slip between subjective visions and concrete reality, allowing identities to fluidly slide into one another. Nina's mother becomes Beth, Nina's metaphoric mother and predecessor within the dance company. Nina vacillates between virginal White Swan and angry, ravenous Black Swan. But the really complicated tension/fusion is the one between Nina and Lily—Lily with those black wings tattooed on her back, marking her out as embodying the darkness, freedom and sexual liberation of the Black Swan. (An interesting question is whether the wings are even really there, or if that's just how Nina sees her rival; this film makes us question everything.) Lily becomes the external incarnation of the dark self lurking within Nina—and when Nina gets in touch with her own inner Black Swan, during the opening night performance of the ballet, she no longer needs Lily, and symbolically murders her. But before that performance finally shatters the last bonds of Nina's restraint, she does need Lily as a dark doppelganger. When Nina returns home from partying with Lily, Lily seems to be there in the hallway—in a stunning, graceful shot of a segmented mirror, Lily seems to be splitting away from Nina, emerging from within her, the two girls separated by the mirror's segmentation. As the drunken Nina taunts her mother, Lily skulks off to the side, mouthing the aggressive, confrontational words that then come out of Nina's mouth. Just as earlier, Lily had first appeared at a crucial moment to disrupt Nina's Black Swan tryout, as a physical manifestation of Nina's discomfort with the dance, here Lily is again giving voice to the emotions lurking beneath Nina's tightly constrained exterior.

When they go to the bedroom and Lily starts to go down on Nina, Nina periodically sees the other girl with her own face, as though she's devouring herself, pleasuring herself—something she'd been typically embarrassed about earlier. And then, recalling the scene where Nina had been mortified to realize her mother was in the room with her while she was masturbating, the other girl, looking like Nina, calls her "sweet girl," like her mother does, and smothers her with a pillow, the way Nina is metaphorically smothered by her real mother. This slippage continues, with Nina going to the hospital to see Beth, only to have Beth attack herself, repeatedly stabbing her own face with a blade (being pecked with a beak?) while screaming that she's "nothing," and then when Nina runs away she finds the bloody knife in her own bloody hands. This dissociation is wonderfully expressed in all the mirror shots where Nina's reflection seems to be behaving independently of her. In the studio, late at night, her reflection continues to turn pirouettes after Nina has stopped, at first moving in subtly different ways, just a few beats off of Nina's own motion, and then increasingly diverging. Later, she sees a hand in the mirror scratching her back, but it's not one of her own hands, which remain at her sides: it's one of the multiple reflections stretched out behind her, a different self reaching out to touch her. Her personality is fragmenting into two, splitting apart, the White Swan and the Black Swan within her becoming defined as two independent selves within one body, just as her role demands of her.

Black Swan

JB: It's an interesting metamorphosis. By the final shot of the film, Nina has gone the way of Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond—and considering that Nina begins the film as a longtime supporting player thirsting to be recognized just once, who could have seen that coming? As Nina gazes up into the stage lights, basking in the glory of the performance in which she transcends technique to become a true dancer, apparently oblivious of her self-inflicted abdominal wound, she is a portrait of euphoria and tragedy, not unlike our final glimpse of Jennifer Connelly's Marion in Requiem for a Dream, actually. In Part I of this discussion I praised Aronofsky's ability to end a movie with a wallop, and Black Swan continues his reputation: Just before Nina's swan dive, she strikes a dramatic crucifixion pose that recalls the final shot of The Wrestler. And before that, Aronofsky's camera swings around the stage as Nina loses herself to the dance amidst Mansell's appropriately whirling interpretation of Tchaikovsky's original score. And just before that, Portman has what might be her most magical moment, when Nina, having just found a shard of glass in her stomach, realizes that her biggest enemy all along has been herself; Portman's face first registers pain, then terror, then emotional exhaustion and then, in one brief moment, peace. As Nina dabs her tears into her heavily powdered cheeks, it marks the first, and really only, time that we can see both the timid White Swan and the confident Black Swan in the same expression. It's a "Wow!" moment.

And of course it's a challenging moment, too. As with Max in Pi and Randy in The Wrestler, it's tough to know how to feel about Nina's fate. The last shot might be out of Sunset Boulevard, but the shot of Nina at the makeup counter affords her a moment of exultation and liberation. Aronofsky has a habit of treating his characters with brutality, always pulling the rug out from under them, never allowing them anything approaching an idyllic happy ending, but with the exception of Requiem for a Dream his characters are almost always afforded a measure of triumph in the end. That it comes at such a high price in some ways makes it all the more rewarding. It's as if Aronofsky is breaking down his characters so that eventually they might transcend their limits. In that sense, you could consider Black Swan an even more visceral cousin of David Fincher's The Game. What's real? What's fake? What does it matter, if it knocks down your defense, opens you up, cleanses you of your fears and makes you cherish the moment in front of you as if it's your last? (And in Nina's case, it might be.) As dark and depressing as Black Swan might seem, it's kind of uplifting too. Isn't it?

Black Swan

EH: I think so, too. The final twenty minutes of the film, during the ballet performance, are downright exhilarating. Even knowing, logically, how tragic and bleak this ending is, I can't help getting swept up in the glory of Nina's performance, can't help feeling awed and excited as she becomes, before my eyes, the wild, forceful Black Swan that she was suppressing beneath her good girl exterior for so long. Aronofsky has been building patiently towards this moment throughout the film, showing Nina's struggles with injecting the proper level of intensity and energy into the role of the Black Swan. She becomes so invested in it that I do, too, so that by the end I'm cheering her on even as she transforms into this dark version of herself, destroying herself in the process. As she whirls around the stage, widening her eyes into a piercing stare, she sprouts feathers from her arms and shoulders, eventually taking a grand bow with full wings sloping up into the air over her head. Throughout the dance, in addition to the music, Aronofsky layers the sounds of rustling feathers into the soundtrack, the sound of Nina's wings flapping around her as she prepares to take flight. Aronofsky, to his credit, allows the transformation to happen, via CGI, in a single long shot, not belaboring it but simply allowing the surreal shift to occur fluidly, until Nina, for her brief moment of glory, has fully inhabited the role of the Black Swan.

It's exciting, because it's exciting filmmaking, and because Portman's Nina is so consistently neurotic and indrawn that it's gratifying to see her breaking free of those restrictions, even if it means the loss of her sanity and, quite possibly, her life. That is, of course, a typical Aronofsky theme. All of his characters have one thing they care about more than living itself, and all of them pursue these obsessions to an unhealthy degree. Black Swan fits neatly into the rest of Aronofsky's oeuvre, at least thematically. Aronofsky even nods back to his first film with the scene where Nina, riding the subway, encounters a creepy old man who makes kissy faces at her and touches his crotch; it's hard to say with any certainty, but it seems likely that he's another manifestation of her subconscious, expressing her discomfort with sexuality. In any event, this man is played by the same actor, Stanley Herman, who taunted Max on the train in Pi. It's like Aronofsky is winking at the audience, acknowledging the continuity of his stories, enforcing the linkage between driven, damaged Nina and her predecessors in his work.

Black Swan

JB: No question about it. Likewise, the grapefruit shot is a wink back at Requiem for a Dream. And of course the aforementioned follow shots and the crucifixion pose reminds of The Wrestler. Speaking of which, when we discussed The Wrestler I asked you whether it was primarily Aronofsky's movie or Rourke's. You said both. I said that when push comes to shove it will always be Rourke's movie to me, for all the meta reasons if nothing else—the way Rourke's performance nods back to his previous roles on screen, in the ring and in life. But Black Swan is different. I've already praised Portman's performance, and rightfully so, but this is always Aronofsky's movie—because he nods back to his own previous films, and because of Black Swan's familiar blend of showy technique and utter fearlessness. In Part I we discussed how Aronofsky's films sometimes seem to play underneath a neon sign proclaiming "This movie is directed!" and the same could be said about Black Swan, but maybe the thing we overlooked about of Aronofsky's in-your-face tactics is the brazenness, almost arrogance, of his filmmaking as a whole. In that sense, Aronofsky is a lot like Quentin Tarantino. And maybe that's why Black Swan reminds me of my reaction to Inglourious Basterds. Make no mistake, I think Tarantino's film is the richer of the two. But both films delight in mishmashing styles and in going beyond edgy into the completely outrageous. Not quite camp, but not far off.

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TAGS: barbara hershey, black swan, darren aronofsky, matthew libatique, mila kunis, natalie portman, pi, requiem for a dream, the fountain, the wrestler, vincent cassel, winona ryder









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