Pages

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Black Swan

Warning: Spoilers.

Aronofsky likes to study characters cracking under pressure. In 'Black Swan' it's the beautiful, timid, perfect, frigid, fragile ballerina Nina Sayers played with exquisite control by Natalie Portman. Her personality makes her a great fit for playing the white swan in Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake', but to play the black swan, she needs to loosen up, get a bit out of the rigid boundaries she has set herself to excel as a performer. Lily, a laid back dancer who naturally embodies black swan in her gracious but beguiling movements threatens Nina, who's constantly worried about being replaced. As a crushing load of expectations begin to fracture her mind, the audience see things through her eyes, to be precise, her mind. (Which is why this is a mind-fuck movie for adults, and the neatly wrapped up 'Inception' is not.)

I don't know if the sex scenes from the movie are on high rotation on Youtube yet. There's nothing explicit - neither a view of a nipple nor a crotch. But the dreamy layer lends an eroticism that's more powerful than nudity. Are Nina's sexual explorations a symbol of her getting closer towards the black swan inside her? I tried to replay the scenes in my head after the movie was over: The ballet producer, played charmingly by Vincent Cassel, indirectly asks her to explore her sexuality so that she departs away her from 'little princess' image befitting the white swan. First Nina tries masturbation in her bedroom; before she can climax, she sees her mother asleep in a chair near her in her room and she stops her act. Then she tries in the bathtub; but this time its not her mother but her mental blockades scare her out of her mood. The director informs us that Nina's ready not only to accommodate, but to be taken over by her complementary twin, Lily, who exudes unshackled sexual energy expected of the seductress black swan, when she's able to fantasize and climax with Lily.

Sex is not the only symbolism in the film, though it was the only one that was quite complex and worked on a mature level. The next frequently used symbolism was the reflecting image. Almost every other shot has a mirror or a reflecting surface. Either the mirror image is doing something the actual person isn't doing (though I have to admit that the director doesn't opt for any cheesy boo shots) or the reflecting surface is a weak black reflection telling us what lies beneath. I thought the director went overboard in pounding the meaning through images. Then there's the expanding goosebump and the disappearing bloody patch, representing the struggle between the white and the black swan; this was the most cheesiest trick in the screenplay.

I particularly liked the interplay between Nina and her mother Erica (played wonderfully by Barbara Hershey). That there be no doorlocks in the house is obviously the mother's decision. In one of the earlier scenes, the ballet director asks Nina if she's a virgin and she responds no. But Portman plays this scene so wonderfully and Aronofsky directs this scene so wonderfully, we don't know if this timid girl is lying. The mother's decision to absolutely avoid all physical boundaries between her and her daughter partly arises from Erica's failure to shine as a ballerina herself because of her accidental pregnancy with Nina. A significant chunk of Nina's 'good girl, no sex' policy seems to be ingrained in her brain by her mother as a cautionary tale.

The director pulls off an expected, but satisfying climax by playing a trick on the protagonist's mind. Was it a cheap trick? It would be, if you're to flip through the pages of the screenplay. But the intensity of the camera, with it's grainy film closing up on Portman's face combined with an eerie background score adds complexity to her character, the narration, the movie as a whole. But I still don't like the very last scene, where the filmmakers leave it up to the audience to write their own ending. Aronofsky did that with Mickey Rourke's character in the 'Wrestler' and he does the same thing here with Nina's fate in limbo. It's not that I'm not capable of convincing myself if someone lives or dies when the closing shot is a bloodied body. It makes me feel cheated when the director strongly guides a viewer all along giving no room to wiggle and in the end shoves him into a wide expanse of possibilities.