Sunday, January 09, 2011

Black Swan

I've got some sort of disease right now that is making me very hazy (maybe it's the combination of an anti-histamine and a cold medicine?) and loopy. I'm very coughy and it's pretty disgusting, but still, I dragged myself out last night to watch "Black Swan."

My sister had warned me about the fact that this was not a movie to be trifled with. Not a pretty little ballerina tale, but a rather traumatizing film that is far scarier than I would expect. I considered myself duly warned and scampered off (like a flu-stricken squirrel) to watch, unsure of what I should prepare myself for. (After all, Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream," for its pretty title, was nothing if not unexpected.)


You've been warned. Spoilers galore.

First off, the cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel.

I was rather leery from the get-go about Natalie Portman. I suppose she is really perfect for the role, since I, too, could only imagine her as the white swan. I didn't think she would make a convincing or even interesting black swan (she didn't really cut it, for me, as Alice in "Closer.") And I could definitely see Mila Kunis as the black swan, but not, perhaps, as the innocent white swan. With their superficial resemble, it was an intriguing casting choice. By the end of the movie, I was sold on both of them. I can see why there's already so much Oscar buzz around this film.

Vincent Cassel, to me, is one of those suave Europeans that don't seem nearly as crass as an American, no matter what his words or actions. He played to that in this movie, doing some rather terrible things but with such a French manner that I found that I didn't hate him as much as I probably should have. I actually rather liked his character, which I think means that I have some mental issues.

I guess the surprise factor of this movie was that it was rather gory. The first instance of the gore (and the first clue that Nina (Natalie Portman) is losing her mind in this role) is during a party, given to usher out "old" ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder, who was just 'meh') and welcome in the newer, younger version, Nina. Nina's wearing this pristine, sparkling white gown and notices during company director Thomas's (Vincent Cassel) speech that she has a hangnail. She runs off to the bathroom and tries to get rid of the blood, but washing her hands doesn't seem to help. She finally grabs hold of the hangnail (I cringe while typing this) and yanks, pulling back a strip of skin all the way to her middle knuckle. It's shocking because it's sudden and unexpected, and something about the very red blood with her in a very white dress is jarring.

The gore just goes from there. I knew from the moment I saw a pointed nail file that no good would ever come of it, and I was right. Beth stabs herself in the face with the nail file while she is in the hospital, phyiscally (but not mentally) recovering from a suicide attempt (she jumped into the street and got hit by a car). The worst part is that Beth turns into Nina right in front of Nina's shocked eyes. She sees herself stabbing herself in the face. The stuff of nightmares.
The visual hallucinations get more frequent as the movie goes on- Nina's reflection moves indepently (and more viciously, passionately) than Nina herself is moving. Her (insanely smothering) mother's paintings, all of her daughter, begin speaking to Nina, in a babble that makes her scream and try to take down all the artwork. Nina has a (much ballyhooed) sex scene with Lily (Mila Kunis) that turns out to have been a dream or hallucination. Nina's skin breaks out into gooseflesh, at first confined in a small patch on her shoulderblade, then spreading. Small barbs begin thrusting through her skin, and she pulls one out to see that it is a still-developing feather. Nina feels something rippling over her skin on the premiere show during Act 2 (when she is the black swan) and finds that the feathers are sprouting, coating her back, shoulders, and arms, turning into large wings.
The worst, of course, is when Nina imagines that she has a physical fight with Lily, who has dressed herself up as the black swan between Acts 1 and 2 of the ballet. Nina shoves Lily into a floor-length mirror in her dressing room, shattering the glass. Nina, still costumed as the white swan, stabs the black swan with a large shard of mirror and drags the body into the bathroom. She completes Acts 2 as the black swan and goes back to her dressing room to turn herself back into the white swan. While she is doing her makeup, Lily comes by to congratulate her, and Nina realizes that Lily is not dead in her bathroom. A small red pool of blood appears on the pristine cleanness of Nina's white swan costume and she pulls out a shard of mirror from her own belly.

This movie was hard to watch because it never let up. It just kept throwing surprises in, making me feel off-balance and worried. I was tense because of the moments that made me jump in my seat and not knowing when the next shocker would come.

I was also tense because there was a time in my life (I think during college? perhaps into when I first started working?) when I used to have such vivid dreams that I really, actually thought that they had happened. For periods of one to two weeks at a time over the course of probably two years, I walked around in a fog, confusing reality with my dreams. I don't know why that didn't worry me at the time, because when I think back on it, that is an insane way to live. But I didn't worry at the time, I assumed things would get better (and thankfully, they did). I remember that confusion, that feeling of uncertainty, and this movie brought it all rushing back into my mind. I had actually forgotten about those times until last night.

It was a thought-provoking movie, for sure. I think I'll need to watch it again to really know how I feel, so that the shock value doesn't factor in as much. Not that it's the perfect film; not at all. But movies are meant to evoke emotion, make people feel something, make them think about things, and this movie did that very well. The way a failed ballerina became a smothering stage mother, swinging in wide arcs between jealousy and maternal love, was rather twisted but also so sad (Nina never called her anything but "Mommy," a creepy indication of their relationship). The way Nina's bulimia was dealt with, her contented little smile when the costumer told her "you've lost weight," was not over-wrought but matter-of-fact. The way Thomas abused his power, seduced a helpless Nina, then pushed her away, was beautifully rendered.

I certainly did not like many of the visual effects shots, which I can't help, since it's what I do for a living. Particularly bad was when Nina hallucinates that her legs snap and break so she has inverted knees, like a bird (that was just terrible- less than a second of crap visual effects). I didn't really appreciate when the goosebumps spread up and down her body in ripples, it looked odd and rubbery. Story-wise, I didn't like that Nina saw herself- she sees herself in a tunnel or a subway walkway or something (I don't know New York, don't judge me), hair down, dressed in sharp black. She sees a watery version of herself hovering over her while submerged in the bath, again with hair down. Those hallucinations didn't seem very much in line with the rest of her visions, and weren't really ever explained.

The black / white was a bit obvious and over stated, Nina always in soft, pale colors, Lily always in dark colors with dark make-up. Nina in her prissy bun, pink tweedy coat and fluffy cream-colored scarf, Lily always with her hair down, in grays and blacks, exuberant and passionate. To the last, when Lily has been "killed" by Nina, they are in opposite colors, with opposite attitudes. Even their names, though inverted- Nina, what I consider a rather fiery name, and Lily, a virginal white flower. For about half the movie, I thought Lily wasn't real, that she was an elaborate hallucination brought on by Nina's feverish mind, reflecting the "black swan" inside herself.

It was a particularly fascinating movie to me because it dealt with an inside stressor. Nobody brought this mental breakdown onto Nina except for Nina herself. She pushes herself harder than anyone else does, and demands more of herself than anyone else ever would. It's a literal breakdown, mentally and then physically, and that slow collapse between the real and the surreal is what was so great to watch. Frightening, but great.

This film, in typical Aronofsky fashion, made me a bit nauseous at times- those hand-held shots following a person walking are particularly nausea-inducing to me- but was beautiful in a gritty, faux-raw sort of way (all those different grains, not so much). I have always said that I will force my children, should I have any, to watch "Requiem for a Dream" as soon as they hit puberty, so that they will see what kinds of horrors different addictions can have (no kid wants to lose an arm). If I have a daughter, perhaps I'll make her watch "Black Swan" if she decides she's going to become the perfect ballerina, no matter what the cost- no daughter of mine is going to die in a self-induced breakdown of epic proportion.


Aaron February 26, 2011 at 11:17 AM  

Wow nice movie review. Do you know if the girl who stabbing herself was a hullusenation or was it it real because I thought she was already dead?

jeanny February 28, 2011 at 1:12 PM  

She was hallucinating, I think, since Beth turned into Nina while stabbing her own face.

I need to re-watch this movie when it's out on DVD!