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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

White Swan too tame, Black Swan sadistic

Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” is one of the most uniquely put together movies of the last few years. It follows Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), an obsessive and perfectionistic ballerina living in New York and her efforts to get the leading role in an esteemed ballet company’s production of “Swan Lake.” The lead role involves playing both the frail and innocent White Swan and its aggressive and sensual evil twin the Black Swan. Needless to say, it is the latter—the Black Swan—that Nina struggles with. With her ruthless self-discipline and meek obedience to her superiors, Nina has never been in the position to let go of her inhibitions. But the play’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), sees behind Nina’s tense, self-effacing demeanor the potential for a dark and visceral performance. And he is all too willing to push their relationship past the boundaries of professional etiquette in order for that potential to be realized.
A surprising thing about “Black Swan” is how structurally similar it is to Aronofsky’s previous film, “The Wrestler.” Both films portray performers who are so dedicated to their professional lives that they have alienated everyone around them. In “The Wrestler,” it was Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke). While he is certainly more affable than Nina and at least allows himself to have non-professional relationships, Randy hurts everyone who gets near him, which only deepens his dedication to the wrestling ring. What’s more: in both films the artist’s work entails the constant torture of his or her own body. Randy’s willingness to have sharp bits of metal jabbed into his steroid-enhanced muscles certainly made me cringe. No less cringe-worthy is Nina’s ascetic lifestyle, with its endless, tendon-straining exercise routines. These are both characters for whom aesthetic achievement entails self-destruction.
That said, “Black Swan” is more stylistically daring than “The Wrestler.” Where the latter film had a documentary feel, “Black Swan” initially teases us into thinking it will employ that gritty aesthetic, only to become a hallucinatory psychological thriller. The shift happens slowly, but even early in the film, there are many signs that our neurotic ballerina has a more tortured inner life than we could have expected. The first hint at the chaos to come takes place in a moment between Nina and her doting mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a failed ballerina herself who now lives with and trains Nina. Erica appears to be a kind and doting mother and the two interact with effortless cheer. However, when the mother bakes a birthday cake for Nina and discovers that her daughter is not hungry, her reaction is perfectly subtle and chilling. Immediately it becomes clear that the Sayer household has always been a prison, with Nina bending completely to her mother’s will.
What prevents “Black Swan” from being a deeply disturbing experience is that we never care enough about Nina to feel moved by her plunge into madness. She is so self-effacing, high-strung, and obsessed with achievement that it’s hard to find a sympathetic human being underneath all that anxiety. And indeed, that is kind of the point. Her success as the Black Swan hinges on her ability to become a real human being, rather than remaining a technically brilliant automaton. She has to let go, to stop being her mother’s slave and start trying to feel some genuine emotion. The problem is that Nina’s emotions are so deeply repressed that any manifestation of them is shown to be destructive and sadistic. We thus spend most of the movie stuck with a dull White Swan, waiting for her to give birth to a monster. This scenario is undoubtedly creepy and Portman’s performance alone makes it worth watching, but the whole thing was a little too bleak and warped to get under my skin.

-Colin Carr ’12

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