All right, ladies. I loved “The Black Swan” enough to risk making it into our first Girls’ Night Out destination. This post is dedicated to the 5 of you who accompanied me last Saturday night.
I first saw “The Black Swan” by myself at the Mega-Death-Plex-16 down in Ft. Myers, Florida in December. You’re never really alone at the Mega Plex, but let’s just say I was unaccompanied.
I had only seen 2 of Aronofsky’s films before “Swan.” I liked “The Wrestler,” though I thought it had a lot of faults, especially the Hollywood-style treatment of the relationship between the father and daughter. I liked Mickey Rourke and I liked Marisa Tomei, but to be honest, I don’t remember too much about the movie.
The rest of this post is filled with reveals about each of the following movies, so you are now on a continuous SPOILER ALERT.
What about “The Fountain?” I hated it. I can’t think of an elegant way to say that the acting was really, really bad. Maybe if Aronofsky hadn’t cast his wife and Wolverine in the main roles, I wouldn’t have been laughing at what was supposed to be the grave story of centuries-old soul mates, the story of a love so strong it could overcome Time (well, it almost overcame time). The theme started out promisingly and I loved the visuals of the domed, golden sky, and Queen Isabel’s chamber and the tree, oh, I mean The Tree. But, alas, I found myself laughing at the mushy, misguided plot. The movie dragged to the point that I kept putting it on pause and going to the kitchen to grab snacks and water and then pausing it again to get more snacks and more water. I didn’t care beans about the characters. I even wanted her to die, you know, just to get it over with. Even the sumptuous costumes of Queen Isabel couldn’t redeem the silly New Age and Pro-Enviro leanings of the story.
Based on the trailer for “Swan,” I feared I would hate it, too. It looked so cheesy and predictable and once again, at risk of being completely overblown.
Well, “Black Swan” is cheesy, predictable, and overblown, but it all worked for me.
First, we have seen each of these characters before and we have seen the underlying themes done to death. What makes “The Black Swan” different? The film tells its version of the fairy tale that is the center of the ballet “Swan Lake,” and proceeds to twist it around and show us what would happen if such a fairy tale came true in the human realm. The film takes the cliché of artistic drive by the throat and gives us something violently, and even humorously, new. It is at times, or maybe entirely, over-the-top.
For example, when Nina, the protagonist, walks into the bathroom in the ballet studio and sees the word “WHORE” written in red lipstick, I laughed. This could have been a scene from an after-school special on the detrimental effects of bullying (she does kill herself in the end after all). But Nina is not in high school and these are not teenagers. This is a professional ballet company and should give us some indication that the filmmaker is going rogue and rogue-r with all of the arch, overused motifs.
The cake that Mommy brings home to share with Nina: OH MY GOD! Was that the most amazingly beautiful pink and green with silver nonpareils only-in-New-York cake you have ever seen? But when Mommy threatens to throw it out, I laughed.
Before we exited to the lobby after the movie, I knew my gal pals didn’t really take to the film, especially due to the fact that some of them were audibly gasping and visibly cringing at each new manifestation of gratuitous horror that Aronofsky provided. Some of the statements I heard afterward, in regards to our heroine, Nina, were “she was mentally ill” and “she was a cutter.” I understand these sentiments, but I think that, ultimately, they miss the point. If we take the movie as true and see Nina as a real woman living in New York and struggling to become the lead ballerina in “Swan Lake,” the movie doesn’t really work because Nina is both cliché and archetype.
If Nina were simply to realize that her hallucinations and scratching could be remedied by seeing a therapist; if she and her mother were to attend a mother-daughter therapy group and begin to talk about their problems; if Thomas examined his motives and checked his chauvinism at the door to attain a less dysfunctional and more affirming method of teaching ballet to young women, this would be a different movie. It wouldn’t be offensive and it could star Julia Roberts. In that version, Nina would be satisfied to dance the Black Swan once, call it quits and join a bulimia/anorexia recovery group. Now that would be a triumph!
One question that came up after the movie was whether or not a ballerina would be able to dance the 3rd and 4th acts of “Swan Lake” with a piece of shattered mirror wedged into her gut. Well, Nina did exactly that and it killed her (thus fulfilling the fairy-tale narrative). So the answer is both yes and no.
Color and lighting are strong elements in “Swan:” clichéd, kitschy, and done to the hilt. From the white pillowcase and its black Florentine scroll that cradles Nina’s waking head in the opening sequence to the first scene between Nina and Mommy, when Nina stares down at her pink grapefruit for breakfast and says “so pretty,” color is used to identify each of the main characters (Nina is pink and white, Mommy green and black, Thomas gray, black, and white, and Lily, black) and to underscore archetype. Nina’s counter colors to her pink and white, as she completes the transformation from Child/Virgin/White Swan into Bitch/Whore/Black Swan are red (as in blood and lipstick) and black.
Mirrors are another repeated motif. They are used sometimes for their horror effect and sometimes to the point of silliness, but in Aronofsky’s hands, they work, screams, laughs, and all. I particularly liked the giant, multi-faceted mirror in Nina and Mommy’s apartment.
The more realistic pieces of the movie worked for me, too. The dancing and music, the knowledge that in order to dance ballet professionally, one must put one’s body through pains and tortures, even beyond what most athletes subject themselves to, the subjugation of womanhood in ballet for emaciated, pre-pubescent body lines, the sexism and misogyny, and the beauty of all of the principle characters. I haven’t mentioned that the acting was brilliant, with perhaps Barbara Hershey and Vincent Cassel outshining even Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, no small feat, that. I used to strongly dislike Natalie Portman (“Closer” and “Cold Mountain” are two glaring examples of her lack of skill), but she has won me over.
So that’s why I loved “The Black Swan.” I loved the horror elements. I loved all that it stole from so many movies that went before. I loved the use of color, mirrors, and lighting, the darkly lit interiors and crammed spaces. I loved the realism. I loved the acting. I loved the pop-psychology, sexually-repressed girl- run-amok business of it. I loved that it was over-the-top and made me laugh at things that are supposed to be sacred.
So who’s free this coming Saturday night? We could see a double feature: First, we’ll rewatch “Black Swan” and then we’ll move on to “Eat, Pray, Love.” Are you in or out?
With love, Twinkly
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