Black Swan, 2010.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey.
A ballerina is pushed to the very edges of her sanity in a gruelling production of Swan Lake.
Darren Aronofsky once said that all his films, when you took away their visual and narrative flair, were about a character’s search for God. They’re certainly all about a search for something. Pi has Max seeking the ultimate number; Requiem for a Dream searches for its next high; The Fountain needed to find a cure; and The Wrestler had lost the American Dream. If you take ‘God’ as an abstract concept for ‘perfection’, Aronofsky’s mission statement makes a bit more sense. Especially so in Black Swan, where Nina’s (Natalie Portman) drive for absolute perfection in her performance of ‘Swan Lake’ makes for her own demise.
But how to achieve perfection? Having an extended lesbian scene between Portman and Mila Kunis is one way. Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the ballet company’s director/pretentious visionary, outlines his different method from the film’s start: ‘Swan Lake’ has been performed many times, so they must strip it down to its bare bones and foundations, to then build it back up again. Only then can they make it fresh, and go some way to achieving this elusive and mystical God. They used to do that in experimental psychology labs in the 60s. The theory was that their patients would effectively re-wire their own broken minds when re-establishing mental connections. Results weren’t that great.
Leroy proceeds to do this not only to the play, but also to Nina and us – the viewers. But in a way, because the film is told so subjectively from Nina’s point of view, her and we are almost the same. It follows that any punishment Leroy (read: Aronofsky) exerts on Nina, the viewer also experiences. The feelings you get from watching these gruelling scenes can be quite acute. Aronofsky shows Nina peeling the skin off from around her nail, and you wince as though you’re doing it yourself; Nina’s toes are shot pirouetting in close-up, and yours start to curl. It all falls under the ‘haptic’ theory of film – where the eye is seen as a sensory organ of touch, as though you can feel the things you perceive onscreen. It sounds over-academic, but there’s a lot of truth in it. People spazing out at Saw isn’t because what they see is too much, it’s because they’re imagining those acts upon themselves.
These haptic encounters are pretty raw, but when coupled with Nina’s schizophrenic perspective, the experience is increasingly intense. As the film is told entirely through Nina, we are also privy to her hallucinations and nightmares. Sometimes she sees feathers sprout from the prickles in her skin, others she envisions lesbian encounters. It compromises the film’s reality, twisting it into something gruesome and deformed, and you’re trapped within it.
I like to think I’ve a strong stomach for these kinda films, but I struggled with the opening hour (until the lesbian scene). It’s Aronofsky’s intention. You’re being stripped away, tested to your limits of endurance – just like ‘Swan Lake’, just like Nina.
I was so, so close to walking. It was terror that kept me there, the paralysing sort like when you think you hear someone downstairs at night. In the film’s final reel, after an hour and a half of punishment, Leroy/Aronofsky makes good of their promise: they rebuild you. Something clicks (or rather, snaps) in Nina. She finally understands how she can be the delicate, innocent White Swan, whilst also channelling its seductive, Black counterpart. Her elation in this attained perfection is infectious. You become delirious with her performance and the applause it garners. She’s found her God, but at what cost?