Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Terror Incarnate (Black Swan)

Stunning admission of the day: I am not exactly one of the most physically adept creatures to ever walk the Earth. I never played organized sports at any level, and never particularly demonstrated any hidden prowess in twelve years of public school gym class. I’m almost entirely sedentary by nature, and there’s no doubt a huge Nature v. Nurture debate wrapped up in that, but suffice to say I’ve been more prone to inactivity for basically as long as I can remember. I have nothing but respect and admiration for people who are physically fit and have really high-end somatic skillsets. The closest I’ve ever come to really applying myself to anything involving rigorous physicality was when I gave myself over entirely to the music department in high school: marching band, concert band, chorus, showchoir, school musicals. OK, concert band and chorus aren’t really relevant on a list of things that are physically demanding, but marching band had its moments, and the choreography of show choir and musicals was especially taxing for me. Those experiences only heightened my inherent fascination with dancers, who combine something I love (music) with something I’m terrible at (precise and graceful movement).

The 1001 Movies Blog Club assignment this week is Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which was a movie that had been hanging around on my personal should-see list for a while. When it came out in theaters I took notice because of my above-cited interest in ballet. Then the critical analysis floating around made it apparent that some people thought the movie was brilliant and daring, and some people thought it was ludicrous camp, and anything that inspires such strong and divisive reactions is something I want to get my own take on. And then it got nominated for some Academy Awards, and Natalie Portman actually won one. With the Club giving me one more reason to finally check it out, I happily accepted the assignment.

I believe a lot of people would use terms like “provocative” or “taut” or “psychologically thrilling” to describe Black Swan, and I don’t dispute any of those but my experience was constantly feeling like the movie was this close to turning into a full-blown horror movie. As I have mentioned before, I love horror movies, so I certainly don’t mean that negatively. I just wondered how that seemingly hadn’t occurred to anyone else who commented on the film. I suppose, at the end of the day, some elements (supernatural killers, buckets of blood) make it universally easy to brand certain movies with the horror label, while other things are more subtle and subjective and are terrifying only in the eyes (and minds) of certain beholders.

(SPOILERS dead ahead, for once for a movie that’s not twenty-six years old or anything. You have been warned.)

If I’m going to go ahead and shelve Black Swan under “horror”, the specific section I’d group it with would be “body horror”. And weirdly enough, body horror is something which I personally find deeply disturbing. Weirdly, because as I led off with, it’s not as though my body is my prized possession and losing any of its capabilities would be devastating. My body is a capability-free lump which my mind inhabits. Maybe that in itself is the key, though, and maybe my innate distrust of my body or some irrational fear that my body secretly resent me means that any meditation on the destruction and degeneration of flesh strikes a deep, horrific chord. In Black Swan, the falling apart is relatively minor, at first: inexplicable scratches on Nina’s shoulderblades, bleeding/peeling cuticles, and the like, but those are still enough to give me the jibblies. With the approach of the movie’s climax, though, there are more outrĂ© metamorphoses, including webbed feet and an elongated neck and whiteless eyes and black feathers (perhaps I begin to see how some people found the film irredeemably campy), plus more than one sequence involving self-mutilating stab wounds. You know, fun stuff.

At the heart of Black Swan is the question of what the hell is going on. Once she wins the dual role of the Swan Queen/Black Swan in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, Nina seems to be physically transforming into a bird. And thanks to the wonders of special effects and CGI, there’s at least the possibility that it all looks viscerally real because it is truly happening. But on another level, it may only be happening in Nina’s head, as she deals with the tremendous pressures that come with the bifurcated role, not least of which is the battle fought over her body and soul by outside forces: her mother, who infantilizes her, and her director, who wants to make her his latest conquest.

In the end, though, it turns out to be both of those, and neither. Nina may not actually be growing wings, but she is suffering throughout the entire story, and not simply from stress but from pre-existing mental illness. The body horror all serves as a primal symbol, something visible and filmable, for the more insidious and almost undetectable mental collapse that is slowly killing our heroine. Invisible but not any less terrifying! In fact, the dawning realization that Nina isn’t being driven crazy by the situation at hand but has been crazy all along turned the film into a double-whammy horror flick for me, because corporeal gross-outs might effectively rattle my amygdalae, but losing my mind genuinely is one of my all-time top fears, with an intensity equivalent to how some people feel about dying in a fire, or public speaking. Needless to say, I was transfixed by the painstaking illustration of one fear via another.

I have to give a lot of credit, too, to Aronofsky and to Natalie Portman. The visual palette of the entire movie is really impressive in the way that it both grounds the story in a very (sometimes literally) concrete world, and the way it slides back and forth into more dreamlike territory. It’s a fairly monochrome aesthetic – no opportunity to incorporate the symbolism of black, white and shades of gray goes to waste – with certain shocking exceptions, like the red of blood. If those evocative contrasts weren’t enough, there are mirrors in almost every shot further underscoring the symbolism. (But part of the brilliance of the story is that they never seem out of place: ballet studios always have mirrors behind the barre, dressing rooms need them, bathrooms need them, and small urban apartments make use of them to create the illusion of larger spaces.) Against that backdrop, Portman’s performance is riveting and brave (paradoxically so, since Nina is so timid and uncertain and really hard to root for), all the moreso for the moments where Portman gets to show flashes of Nina’s dark side, which seems like such a wholly different person from the main character that it’s hard to cognitively reconcile they’re played by the same actress.

I was reminded while watching Black Swan of Aronofsky’s movie Pi, another trippy story with a protagonist who is battled over by selfish parties while being battered internally by mental illness. But in Pi, the main character ultimately heals himself, rejecting the blessing and curse of his sanity-abrading faculty for numbers and finding inner peace and contentment. Black Swan is a true tragedy, and Nina finds her freedom in the same manner as Odette in Swan Lake. They both seem to take for granted the notion that there is no gift which is not also its own punishment, and that life comes down to choosing between being exceptional, which is self-destructive, or being normal, which might allow for some happiness (or at least longer life expectancy). Accepting that as a universal truth might be the most horrifying concept of all.


  1. Black Swan is no more than 1980s Brian DePalma on steroids.

    1. Which tells me I really need to watch more '80's DePalma! I've only seen Body Double and The Untouchables (by him from that decade, anyway).