not in our stars, but in ourselves
Much has been made of Black Swan (2010) since it was released, with equal numbers of detractors and fans and apologists and who knows what else. There was the controversy about whether or not Natalie Portman did anything except crash diet, when her dance double told the press that Portman’s head had merely been digitally added to her body. There was the lengthy and boring discussion of how little Portman and costar Mila Kunis ate, and how hard they trained, to look like real ballerinas. There was a lot of hype about how great it was as a representative of the Mindfuck genre (the greatest example, according to me, is Fight Club , with Psycho  being a sort of Lucy of the genre). Correspondingly, there was then quite a lot of hype about how it was a pretty silly movie, overall, one that took itself entirely too seriously.
There’s all kinds of nonsense that someone with more patience than I could explore in that morass, but I decided I’d just re-watch the film. The first time I saw it (by myself, at the fabulous Coolidge Corner Theatre, amongst lots of old ladies who probably thought they were about to see a nice little film about ballet), I loved it. I loved it unabashedly. Swan Lake has always held a lot of resonance for me, for reasons that I’ll be happy to divulge if you get me drunk someday, and I loved that Black Swan explored the dark, creepy side of the story – more of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale here than a Perrault, Tchaikovsky’s source material for his other great ballet, The Sleeping Beauty. And you know what? I still love Black Swan. I’m willing to admit that it is a bit silly in some ways, and that it takes itself quite seriously, and that the differences between Portman’s dancing and her real double’s (!) are as obvious as the day is long, but I love it anyway.
The film opens with a dream: Nina (Portman) is playing Odette, and she is transformed into a swan by the cruel and demonic Rothbart. She awakens, smiling happily, since every dancer wants to dance the Swan Queen. Happy dreams soon dissipate, because Nina lives with her Mrs. Bates-like mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey). Erica had been a ballerina herself, until she had Nina when she was 28, and she lives only for and through her nervous little daughter. In class that morning, the company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), selects her as one of the potential Swan Queens for their new production of Swan Lake. While Nina is technically perfect and ideally suited to the Odette role – fragile, virginal, fearful, self-sacrificing – she is too tightly controlled to dance the Odile role: sexy, dangerous, bold, destructive. Nevertheless, something is awakening in Nina: she sees seeming doppelgangers all around her; she has visions of grievously injuring herself; she sees a newcomer to the company, Lily (Kunis), as both a threat and an object of desire. She wins the coveted Odette/Odile role – but, the film seems to beg, at what cost?
I would like to leave aside all the various controversies and imperfections mentioned above, if I may, because I personally find them uninteresting. What I do find interesting, however, is the music in Black Swan. Because the Academy has rules against something like Amadeus (1984) winning best score, Clint Mansell’s superb score was ineligible to be nominated at the Oscars. I think that’s just a crying shame, because the score is nearly the best thing about Black Swan. It liberally quotes from Tchaikovsky’s ballet score, but not in any kind of derivative way. The effect, as melodies and harmonies and solos are warped and twisted and woven through Mansell’s music, is that of a tune stuck in someone’s head – in Nina’s head. The film is Nina. We hear what she hears, think what she thinks, see what she sees. The score is the most sophisticated exemplar of this, shall we say, phenomenological approach. I think it’s especially fascinating that the score most often quotes from the overture, and from Act IV – the point in the ballet when all the romantic stuff goes out the window, and a ferocious tempest roars in. If you don’t believe me, go listen. However, during the oft-mentioned lesbian fantasy between Nina and Lily, the score quotes the pas de deux from Act II – that is to say, the romantic high point of the entire ballet, the point at which Siegfried and Odette seem to devote themselves to one another for eternity. (Of course, Siegfried turns out to be easily tricked, and Odette just needs someone – anyone – to fall in love with her in order to break the spell. N’importe qui.) To think of Black Swan as a somewhat literal representation of what it is like to be Nina, and to hear the lovey-dovey pas de deux at that moment (before it morphs into something dark and sinister again), is an awfully nice touch.
It’s the little things like that, you know, that keep me coming back to Black Swan. I like a good doppelganger story as much as anyone, since it always means a nice creepy death. However, that’s not quite enough to make me want to sit through all Portman’s hystrionics again and again. I hate to contradict all those Serious Film People who’ve mostly dismissed this one, but I return to Black Swan repeatedly because it’s one of the better examples of film using itself as a body – a body of perceptions and experiences and emotions and quirks and, ultimately, of self-destruction. You can keep your Lacanian theory. I’ll take a film that gives me hearty doses of what it actually feels like to be so far round the bend – and, say what you will, but Black Swan accomplishes that better than most.
[And, to that effect, do not miss this: some clever internetter’s screencapping exploration of the “rolling” scene, with literally subliminal messages that you will fail to notice consciously while you watch, but that seep in all the same.]
P.S. Everyone goes on and on about how great a debt this owes to The Red Shoes (1948) – but, for my money, it’s far closer to Black Narcissus (1947). Not as good, mind you, but those are the themes we’re really exploring here.