Swan Dive into the Loony Bin

What beautiful dancing, so graceful and strong. Black Swan, at first sight, is an inspiring look into ballet’s hardcore world of artistry, beauty, and power. It’s all about elegance and control until, one scene after the next, you’re wondering what possessed you to watch this movie with your mother. Hey Mom, do you want popcorn? I want popcorn. I’m going to make popcorn in the kitchen. Far away. All the popcorn.

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a soloist with beautiful technique and intense self-discipline throughout every aspect of her meticulous life. After the prima ballerina suddenly leaves the company, Director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to cast Nina as the new leading lady in Swan Lake. She is the perfect choice for the White Swan since Nina is naturally meek, submissive, and gentle. The role, however, also requires that she play the evil, volatile, and seductive twin, the Black Swan. As Nina struggles to release her inner demon for the part, two things happen which threaten her role and her sanity: the first is the appearance of a new soloist in the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), who embodies the Black like Nina does the White; and the second is Nina’s personal metamorphosis which transforms her from Mommy’s little princess into an unstable, wound-picking, aggressive basket case.

There is so much to say about Black Swan I don’t know where to begin. Ballet is not as backstabbingly bitchy as Hollywood would have you believe. But, that said, every company is different. Who really knows what goes on behind those velvet curtains? It is genius how the film takes this stereotypically “soft”, “gentle” world of ballet and dips it in a vat of flaming oil. For example, real-world dancers study each others’ techniques in order to improve their own. In Black Swan this feature is taken to the next level, turning Nina into a copycat who takes bits and pieces from the people she admires (like the prima’s lipstick or Lily’s fashion sense) and assimilates them into her own patchwork personality. Nina gorges on fragments of other characters like food for her inner demon. When that demon is stuffed full, those borrowed bits of confidence and strength burst out of the timid Nina and result in a “perfect” performance. Perfect, twisted, and schizophrenic.

Mirrors are huge in the world of dance, but Black Swan turns them into something sinister. Nina spends her entire work day and free time staring at a mirror. After a while she notices that her reflection has company: her dark, inner self is trying to break through. It’s spooky. Nina may stop in the middle of a turn but the Nina in the mirror (the stronger Nina?) keeps on spinning.

Breathing is also huge. Not all choreography is set to music. To stay in synch the dancers keep a rhythm by breathing together. This makes it all the weirder when Nina hears sighs and whispers in random places. What was once a necessary tool becomes something twisted and threatening, and signals that Nina’s outer-self and inner-self are no longer in synch.

As I was watching I wrote down, “She’s a good girl with some kind of inner monster that makes her do dark things,” and not five minutes later Director Leroy is saying of the ex-prima, “Everything Beth does comes from within. From some dark impulse.” Ding Ding Ding! Point to the observant! Nina releases her pent-up psychopath over the course of the movie, but to begin with she is the picture of innocence. She is, but her environment isn’t. Even the apartment she shares with her mother looks a bit staged. Like Hansel and Gretel in the gingerbread house. The film shows cracks in the glass from the very beginning until eventually the big picture is totally  obscured by shards. If you watch this in high definition (and I strongly suggest that you do), look closely and you’ll see subtle ripples in Nina’s skin from early on in the film – a sign that something within wants out.

Ballet isn’t all tutus and satin. While Black Swan is a bit of an exaggeration, I thank it for focusing on the poisonous apple rather than the fairy tale façade. This film is hostile, frightening, unsettlingly seductive, and most of all, capital D in the Disturbing department. It is a creepy 9/10. Be wary and watch it. Just, maybe not with your mom.

Black Swan trailer.

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