Tacked up in the
torture chamber exercise room here at Castle Blogferatu is a list of directors I have a love/hate relationship with. Surprisingly, it’s not an extremely long list, but it does grow by a few directors every so often. Kubrick is always in the top three. So is Dario Argento. Certainly Aronofsky has a safe spot in the top five.
I mean, I loved Requiem For A Dream and Pi, but both stayed with me for a few days like a particularly disturbing nightmare. I feel just a little damaged by them.
Also, in truth, I never even knew I liked ballet until after the start of the 21st Century. The only reason I found out was because I saw, ironically, Swan Lake.
Hell of a way to start. I’ve been in love with ballet ever since, Swan Lake still being one of my favorites along with Giselle. I fully expected, therefore, to be emotionally tortured as well as fascinated by Black Swan.
My first hurdle was, of course, getting past Natalie Portman without thinking V For Vendetta. This is made more difficult by the fact that Mila Kunis is often just a little more interesting to watch.
But Aronofsky is certainly no slouch. First there are the mirrors, on one hand so obvious and necessary in a ballet studio. On the other hand, the plot is also rife with duplicity and moral ambiguity as evidenced early into the movie as Nina (Portman) sits in front of the mirror in newly ousted Beth MacIntyre’s (Winona Ryder) dressing room then steals some of her belongings.
There is also the wing/feather motif. They’re everywhere in the background: sculptures, dressing rooms, wallpaper, towels, blankets, even actual swan images over Nina’s left shoulder as she soaks in her tub.
How about contrast? Lily (Kunis) is always dark. Nina is always light. I also like the Nina/Lily subplot and really wanted Lily to be a delusion like Paul Bettany and Ed Harris were to Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Admittedly that would have made things more explainable and a therefore less hallucinatory viewing experience.
But one of the most interesting aspects of Black Swan is the fact that it has all the hallmarks of Grande Dame Guignol (as elaborated in Peter Shelley’s 2009 book Grande Dame Guignol Cinema). For starters there’s Nina’s mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey). She’s not just overprotective but cloyingly and weirdly so, infantilizing Nina in the process.
Erica also has hang-ups about the past. They’re not at the level of, say, Baby Jane Hudson, but they’re there (having given up her career to have Nina).
Nina is also imprisoned but, in a clever twist, by her own hand. She uses a pipe to barricade her door shut and try to gain some measure of privacy from her ever-hovering, nearly omnipresent mother.
As for the guignol aspect, well, it’s everywhere, and it escalates. Aronofsky starts with Nina splitting a toenail while practicing. There is her ever-worsening rash, her bloody fingernails, her hallucinated stripping of skin from her finger, the slamming of her mother’s hand in a door, the stabbing of Lily, and of course the finale.
Aronofsky’s guignol even crosses into body horror. In her delusions, Nina sees intensifying instances of her transformation into the Black Swan: gooseflesh, red sclera, backward-bending legs, and a clear reference to Cronenberg’s The Fly as she plucks a feather out of her shoulder. Her ultimate full commitment to her role and the onstage result are unnerving yet gripping.
Overall, Black Swan is often a stunning film to watch, not only in terms of the ballet itself, but also in terms of its metaphor for commitment to one’s art/field/role as well as the double-edged sword of reward/delusion that such commitment can become. To be fair, I wasn’t planning to watch it again.
Now I feel like I should.