Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Black Swan

Black Swan is a movie that alternates between being highly bizarre and unsettling. In the end, though, what it ultimately was was disturbing. It is a movie about obsession, stress, and pressure. It is about one ballerina (Natalie Portman) and her absolute desire to be the best at what she does. Or, alternatively, it is about one poor girl and her inability to know when enough is enough.

The Dark Side of Expectations

Natalie Portman shows us a girl who is fragile, fearful, yet absolutely dedicated to her art. She is vulnerable but so determined as to be unhealthy in her obsession. For, above all, she wants to have the lead role in Swan Lake; she wants to be the Swan Queen. Now this may sound a rather silly premise, but it is not silly at all. Through this movie we see a nasty, nasty example of how entertainers and people in general can follow their dreams beyond rationality. And, all along the way, they are often encouraged to do so by friends and family. They are told to do their best, to focus on the goal with a drive that is near inhuman. Have you ever had to concentrate so utterly on something that it feels almost as if it defines you? It can happen, to the point where you can forget to live; friends are forgotten, habits such as eating and sleeping become distracting and feel unnecessary. In Black Swan, we see this and the awful consequences of following one's dream to the point of self-destruction.

The big motivator in this film lies in the nature of the role of the Swan Queen. The ballerina who performs the Swan Queen must embody grace, nobility, and fragility; and Natalie Portman's character has that down pat. However, she must also play out the role of the Black Swan, which is totally opposite. The Black Swan is dark, seductive, aggressive. Dominant. The main thread of the movie follows Natalie Portman trying to embrace that side of herself in order to depict it naturally on the stage. And, given her innocent and kind nature, that process is difficult and wrenching.

When is it Too Much?

As someone who has played a couple of intense roles in theater, I can attest to the fact that putting yourself into a dark character and doing it well can be highly disturbing. What makes Black Swan even worse is that the ballerina's personality here is directly at odds with the personality she needs to assume with the Black Swan. To take on that role, she must allow herself to let her inhibitions go, and to dance more extremely. And, as part of training for that, everyone seems to tell her that she has to let go in her daily life as well. Thus we watch on helplessly as Natalie Portman allows herself to fall. It is as shocking and as harsh a change in personality as can be imagined. And, given the seriousness of such a shattering alteration, many strange and disturbing things happen to her, all exacerbated from the stress of preparing for such a role. Hallucinations, disorders, hostility towards loved ones and strangers... It is hard to think of another movie that psychologically deconstructs a character so nastily.

A huge part of the problem is the fact that the ballerina has no system of support and, for that, the movie seemed a little bit unbelievable. Her mother is harsh, stern, and unforgiving. Their relationship is completely dysfunctional; she is one of those moms that requires her daughter to be the absolute best ballerina, not really minding or noticing her daughter's own immensely negative reaction to the stress and expectation. Similarly, Natalie Portman's director/choreographer is as sleazy as he is demanding; he, above all, unwittingly pushes her down the path of darkness and corruption. She doesn't seem to have any friends at all. There is nobody who can really help her, and the one ballerina friend she does make (Mila Kunis) seems to exist only to compel Natalie Portman to throw aside her inhibitions with greater abandon.


It was not without flaws, however. The director's way of illustrating Natalie Portman's fall was very strange. Her hallucinations are symbolic of the role she is taking on, but often it feels too overt and obvious. I won't mention specifics, but it did feel as if more subtlety would have been better. In addition, I'm not sure I understand why the recurring theme of sexual deviancy kept coming up. The role of Black Swan is one that involves being seductive and sexy, but the amount of sexual material in the film just was too much and didn't feel relevant. It was indicative of her increasing loss of inhibitions and self, but it was another area where I felt less would have been more.

In the end, Black Swan was incredibly disturbing. I know I've said that a couple times already, but it is the one word that describes it utterly. I can't help but admire it for its effectiveness in portraying one ballerina's descent into insanity, but I also can't help but want to look away. I doubt I'll watch it again because it was just that intense. That makes it a great movie, but also a bit scary. Should I like the movie because it made me want to run screaming from the theater? I don't know about that...


+ 10 for being an incredibly intense and effective psychological drama/horror
- .5 because nothing is perfect
- .5 for overly blatant symbolism that distracts from the story
- .5 for too much focus on 'sexy time' that had little relevance to the story


  1. I enjoyed the review and the movie.

    I actually also complained that there was too much annoying sexuality in the movie, but Patrick had to explain to me that part of the sexual excess in the film have to do with the fact that in order to encompass the role of the Black Swan, Portman's character has to become the role; in order to completely lose herself, she has to let go of all her inhibitions--letting her mom rule her life (stage mother in the form of former ballerina), go out drinking and partying, and ravish herself (hence the unmentionable scenes).

    Like you said, in many ways Nina seems a typical ballerina on the outside, killing herself for a role. However as she does more and more for the lead, we find that she literally IS killing herself for the role. There is some psychosis going on here that is more overt than a regular ballerina, yes, but that's the manifestation of the role and the film goes to lengths to prove that Nina is unwell. As you mentioned, many ballerinas have body issues (aka anorexia and bulimia) and the "I must be the best" attitude which are things they need to be successful, but Nina begins to suffer from this in the form of delusions which end up taking over. It reminds me of a girl version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She's still both, but the transformation into BOTH swans takes its toll.

    The lack of support DOES seem weird, but in order to fully nurse this disorder or psychosis that Nina is dealing with, she would most likely need to feel alienated. Competition among dancers is grueling, and ballerinas can be especially critical.

    That was my take on it anyway. Also the film industry is beginning to go into the movie phase once again called "fuck with the viewers' sense of reality." I loved it, but yes, it does have freaky "what the...!?" moments.

  2. See I recognized that, to become the Black Swan, she had to lose herself. And I recognized that the role of Black Swan involves being free, aggressive, and sensual. So some sexual 'awakening'/'deviancy' makes sense.

    But it was just sooooo prevalent throughout the movie that it just seemed excessive.


    For example, she has numerous scenes where she is: 1. Masturbating. 2. Having bizarre sexual fantasies. 3. Letting herself get hit on by her teacher. Any ONE of those would have sufficed to illustrate that she is letting herself go sexually in order to embody the role. By contrast, I can only really recall one scene which embodies her becoming more aggressive/independent: the last time she sees her mom at the house where she strikes her aside and leaves even though her mom asks her to stay.

    It just seemed too focused on the sexual side of things when the movie itself made clear that there is more to the Black Swan role than sensuality. Not to mention the sexual scenes themselves were very disturbing, what with her seeing herself in Mila Kunis' place and the crazy skin ripples caused from... emerging feathers or whatever. That was my complaint with blatant symbolism by the way (the feathers).

    The hallucinations just seemed to be TOO out there, making it unbelievable at times. If they had made an effort to explain why she would have such radical dreams (an overactive imagination or a past history of mental illness) it would've made more sense. But, instead, all we really know is that she is isolated and insanely stressed out. And I can't recall ever having hallucinations in that scenario.

    I definitely like the analogy to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That is highly appropriate for the movie, and I hadn't thought of it :). And, despite all this criticism, I DID love it too! I'm just pointing out what made me disconnect from the movie and raise my eyebrows with skepticism when I should've been absorbed in the movie.

  3. Ahhh okay! Your explanation of spoilers made me understand more. Yeah, I hated that creepy teacher. Really could've done without that moreso than anything else. I will say that the one sexual interaction where she hallucinated someone that wasn't there was probably her tripping on E she was given. So that part made more sense.

    But if they explained the mental illness, then it wouldn't have had the same awesome effect! Also, I did NOT know that was feathers.

  4. Oooh, yeah, I totally forgot about how the lezzo scene was induced by the drug. Mila shifting into Natalie Portman's face wasn't though. Anyways, I just wish that there had been less skin ripplage going on in that scene. Would have been so much better that way...

    Yeah, it took me until the end to figure out that the rippling was caused apparently by feather growth, because that's what comes out at the end when she goes all Black Swan. The rippling comes when she is doing things that involve losing her inhibitions, so the link makes sense. I just wish it hadn't been so distracting, not to mention gross!

  5. Haha, wow. It may just be my sense of the macabre but after reading the reactions, I've gotta see this film.

  6. So I totally didn't read all the comments yet but just wanted to add it's following her as she has a psychotic break. The pressure gets to be too much and she literally breaks down.

    I don't want to put spoilers here but we can discuss it later on. When I'm not working and can discuss it. :P