Swanning About

Black Swan came out in theatres yesterday. I’ve seen it twice. I’m still not entirely sure I know what’s going on, but I’ve got a pretty good idea. Or, more accurately, I know what’s going on but I’m struggling with the why. It’s a masterpiece and a folly, and a film that you should definitely see. However, what I’m about to say is probably going to somewhat detract from the experience if you haven’t already born witness, so, yeah, spoiler warning lol.

Ballet never interested me. It’s a similar sort of thing to musicals in my head, and the problem isn’t so much the form itself as the rigidity of how it works. With a theatre production changing the sets and outfits is only half of what you can mold and alter. The emphasis on certain words, the liberal nature with which you adhere to the script, all of these things can be changed to entirely rework the meaning of a play. Musicals, on the other hand, are driven by the songs, and a song has a beat and a lyric, and changing those things suddenly changes it into a different song. If you’re going to see Phantom of the Opera, you’re going for the songs, so messing with those songs isn’t going to fly. Ballet, similarly, is driven by the music and the dancing; the two go hand in hand, and while you can alter the periphery around those things, changing those twin pillars of what ballet is about is going to fundamentally alter the production in a way that renders it not Swan Lake, or the Nutcracker, or whatever you’re performing.

That’s not to say I’m not interested in the things that swirl around ballet. A vortex of insane amounts of practice, dancers who are on the border of emaciation and mental breakdown. They’re at the same level of professional athletes, but under twice as much pressure; if you come second in a race, you can second in a race. If you put a foot wrong in a ballet, you’re a failure. So, when Aronofsky made that desperate striving for perfection the main focus of his film, I was more than happy. Throughout his directorial career, I’ve loved everything he’s done. Pi is completely mental, but displaying Bergman-like skill with alienation and disconnecting the audience from the characters. That was his debut. Requiem for a Dream is the most painful two and a half hours I’ve ever spent, and it’s far, far more than just a way to put someone off substance abuse for a good long while. And the Fountain, up until now, was probably my favourite of his. The absurd grandiose nature of it, the absolutely stunning score by Clint Mansel, and the obsession with life, death and failure, is as objective as it is subjective; he drew you in, all the while casting you out.

But, all this considered, it’s the Wrestler that most accompanies Black Swan. They follow similar story arcs, and while Mickey Rourke’s character is hardly going insane over the course of the film, he is going through a similar casting off of the self. Or perhaps rejection is a better word. But where he’s driven by desperation, faced with putting everything on the line so that he can feel like a man again, or spending the rest of his life serving coleslaw at a deli counter, Natalie Portman’s dancer doesn’t even have that luxury; the only thing she has is the ballet. That’s why she must succeed. She has to be perfect.

There’s a reason the film is called The Black Swan. Centered around Swan Lake, Nina (Natalie Portman) takes on the role of the Swan Queen, meaning she has to play the White Swan, who is pure, fragile, fearful and innocent, and the Black Swan, who is deceitful, sensual, daring and powerful, both at the same time, in the same production. She’s got the White Swan down; her mother was a dancer, who gave up her ‘career’ to have her daughter, and seems to have forced her daughter into the life she wanted to lead. And so, she’s lead it. But you feel like there’s a lack of passion there; she’s going through the motions, perfecting her technique, but you never really see if she loves to dance.

Thomas, the director of the production, tells her that technique isn’t enough, she has to ‘transcend’. And that’s what Black Swan is about. It’s about transcending herself so that she can become the dancer that everyone wants her to be. That’s why, over the course of the film, her body is falling apart, flashes of gooseflesh washing over her body like a shiver, and her shoulderblades erupting in spots. The film doesn’t bother showing you what’s real and what’s imagined, and that’s half the point; we’re along for the ride, pushed just as Nina is pushed, until she explodes into her apex, arms aflutter, transcendent.

It’s the endings that give it away. In The Wrestler, the final shot is of Mickey Rourke taking a leap from the corner pillar of the ring. We know he’s pushing himself too hard. We know this can’t end well, but, importantly, we’re not shown it falling apart. We’re only left with that still image of him flying through the air, where he wants to be, even if it is a phyrric victory. He’s transcending, right there, thoughts of the deli counter about as far from his mind as possible. Black Swan, on the other hand, doesn’t finish as Nina takes the jump that we know is suicide. It could’ve done, and it probably would’ve been a perfectly good ending, but Aronofksy doesn’t want to leave us with that shred of hope. No, he’d rather let us see her hit the mattress, let us see the dozens and dozens of dancers crowd around the panting girl, only for them to realise that her theatrical suicide isn’t pretend.

And, as the blood seeps out of her stomach, we get applause. Fade to white, credits roll, and still the audience applauds, a bitter, ironic crescendo that acts like a twist to the knife. Aronofsky has gutted us, driven us to such intense, unrelenting highs that we can’t help but gasp and sob. It’s a masterpiece alright, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant.

About Phill Cameron

I've graduated, had a look at the world, and spat. Now I'm devoting my time to moving from 3/4 of a games journalist to 9/10ths. I figure I can get away with 9/10ths.
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