BLACK SWAN (2010)
Genre: Psychological Horror Thriller
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Produced by: Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Brian Oliver, and Scott Franklin
Written By: Mark Heyman, Andre Heinz, and John McLaughlin
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, and Barbara Hershey.
It’s no secret that the subject of escapism has been a fascination and a commonly utilized element within Director Darren Aronofsky’s body of work. His previous works such as Requiem For A Dream, and The Wrestler fully embody the idea of very lost and emotionally frigid individuals pursuing an unclear or at the least unattainable desire, all the while losing themselves in some tormenting manner of psychosis as a means of coping. Black Swan ventures into the disciplined and artistic world of ballet, in order to tell a story that tackles the dangers of obsession, mental illness, precise perfection vs effortless chaos, and even the ascension into full grown woman hood.
It could be argued that Black Swan is in fact a coming age story to a certain degree in that our hero ascends into adulthood in the end. Sadly this development into adult maturity is brought about through the most aggressive and tragic of methods. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer who works for a New York Ballet Company. There is no indication how old she is, however based on her age, appearance, as well as the appearances of the girls she works with, it is relatively fair to say that she is already in the realm of her liberated twenties. And yet, she is as innocent as constrained as that of a child, hence her first name, Nina, being Spanish for little girl, along with the fact that she lives under the roof of a dominant, yet subtly controlling Mother, played excessively well by Barbara Hershey, who manages through just the sheer quickness of her facial expressions to convey how she feels, and how easily she can shift between moods. The only screen time she has are her scenes with Portman alone in their claustrophobic New York apartment, which gives the feeling of anything beside a warm and gentle feeling.
Nina’s desire to be a great ballet dancer is illustrated not only through her dedication to the craft, but also her obsessive desire to be perfect in every way shape her form can allow her in her role as the white swan. The company’s production of “Swan Lake” proves more of a challenge than what Nina ever bargained for, given that her child-like innocence fully bodies the white swan half required in the duality of the lead role. Unfortunately, because of her pure innocence, as well as her obsessively disciplined approach towards perfection, she lacks the willingness to let go and embrace the chaotic nature necessary to embrace the free spirit that fully embodies the artistic expressionism that defines her dancing.
One could argue that Black Swan is psychological analysis into an individual who undoubtedly suffers from many developmental issues such as schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and even anorexia nervosa, which very much fit the pattern of strange behavior Nina exhibits in her desire to ascend into the role of the black swan. However, there is a grander argument to be made for the psychology of this film, and the amount of passion used into bringing as much detail, and artistic expression as possible.
On a personal level, Black Swan can also be seen as a metaphor for anyone who pursues their art to the brink where madness is the price toward the perfection they obsessed over. Aronofsky is without a doubt his own auteur in the fact that throughout his body of work with films such as Pi, The Wrestler, Requiem For A Dream, and his more recent project Mother, that he has a vision that spares no level in depicting the relentless consequences inherent within escapism, obsession, and even the need to be unique in the context of one’s own artistic integrity. With a character as fragile, yet as aspiring as Nina Sayers, he is no doubt making a statement on his own desire to make his mark as a craftsman, while at the same time educating viewers on the dangers of such a pursuit when taken too far, and developed solely through principal based technique.
Rules are meant to be broken. They function to the capacities in which they are inherently limited. Principles have a grander authority in their effectiveness and progressive use for developing the individual who stuck to them and used to them for the betterment of whatever they were tackling. This can be applied to filmmaking in many ways. In the 2002 Spike Jonze comedy drama, Adaptation, Nicolas Cage’s Donald Kaufman states that a rule simply instructs a person to perform an action because it works. At times the rule(s) can be effective, and at other times, their use can overall prove to be nothing short of pointless. A principle however, demonstrates an explanation on why it has been effective in the past based on detailed results. Still, the use of this type of implementation can still run amuck in that there are cases where exceptions need to be made in order for greater progression to commence. In the case of Nina’s transformation into the black swan, her Ballet instructor Thomas (Vincent Cassel) instructs her on how the very nature of, “Letting go,” is essential for her development, otherwise, he won’t ever be able to see her go beyond anything other than the innocence of white swan who is pure, disciplined, and just desperately striving for a perfection that is nothing short of an ugly contrast to that of her evil/liberated twin the black swan, who carries none of the defining traits that constrain and essentially limit to the white swan into a virginal being of passionless skill.
This is where the character of Lily (Mila Kunis), comes in. Unlike Nina, she is reckless, more laid back, more confident, and drastically less obsessive in her technique as a dancer. She basically is the full embodiment of the black swan, while hardly having any of the traits meant to embody the more delicate white swan. Now when applying this idea to the concept of filmmaking and screenwriting, it’s clear that the personal nature of this film can no doubt sum up not simply Aronofsky’s desire to stand out in the full potential of his own craft. This same can be said for many other auteurs of his craft, and this goes back to the subject of technique. Many great filmmakers are self-taught, utilizing the inspirations they’ve drawn from other artists that have influenced them, while others have applied a more by the book approach, while still finding great commercial and financial success. However, as dedicated as both sides are to applying the principles that help their technique manifest a great deal of function, there is a point where they must simply let go of their need for structure and order and let instinct and chaos help create the rest of the work into something just through pure instinct will feel whole, and with little need for justification, when it will simply be what it is.
The last twenty minutes of Black Swan surely embodies this willingness to let go and embrace the chaos, Nina’s mind spirals to the point where she winds up seemingly stabbing her competition in Lily. As we later learn, it was just another of the many delusions she suffers from, while at the same time illustrating the metaphorical battle in annihilating one part of ourselves so that we can embrace another part of ourselves we had always held back. This act of self-severing grants Nina a greater resolve in finding and willingly embracing the seductive darkness that had been always lurking, waiting, and hungering for the surface of the dance floor. By the time she dawns the mask of her evil twin, she dominates the floor and audiences in what is an alluring dance sequence of emulating, yet empowering cinematic awe from Aronofsky’s ability to captivate viewers in his aesthetic.
Black Swan, although a tail of madness, speaks to the heart of any artist looking to make their mark and the consequences that come with such focused dedication, both mentally and physically. On a positive note, when it comes to how much an artist bases their own methods on all the skills they have learned, this film could serve as the proper deconstruction of the perfection complex every artist suffers and strives for. The act of “letting go,” is the most beneficial advice this film offers through the Ballet mentor character Thomas, who shows that as great as any artistic visionary wishes to be in pursuit of their craft, and whatever methods they’ve studied, at some point, all that sense of control will have to be thrown in order to achieve an ascension that can either help one achieve the rebirth necessary for them to transcend, or fall and lie defeated through their unwillingness to embrace the chaos that defines the relative nature of art.
Black Swan, film produced by Cross Creek Pictures, Protozoa Pictures, Dune Entertainment, Phoenix Pictures, United States, (distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2010) 108 minutes.
Adaptation, film produced by Good Machine, Propaganda Films, Intermedia, United States, (Distributed by Columbia Pictures, 2002,) 114 minutes.