"The Red Shoes Diaries"
"Losing Control (She-Bop, Sh'Bop, Sh'Bop)"
Black Swan is a head-trip, alright. Darren Aronofsky's latest of his films exploring the limits of obsession—the pursuit of it, the need for it, and its cost—never travels too far afield from the whirling dermis-dome of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman—brave). A "girly-girl" to the nth degree, Nina still lives with Mom (Barbara Hershey—even braver) in a 12 year old's bedroom, blushes in embarrassment when sex is brought up, and still pursues the girl's version of what the Bible calls "childish things"—prima ballerina.
And like the dervishes who spin to achieve some form of religious ecstasy, she is looking for an epiphany in her pursuit of perfection. Be careful what you wish for.
From the loges, it all looks so elegant, but on stage it's a board-thumping, sinew-stretching, bone-popping athletic performance, practiced to such an extent to be made to seem easy. The body takes a beating. Callouses form, bones snap, nails bear the brunt of the quest for perfection. It's beautiful but brutal. And, as any athlete will tell you, it's as much a challenge of the mind, as well. There's the discipline to do the job unerringly, but there's also physical acting, as well. Synapses fire to work the muscles, but those same synapses are under assault psychologically, fraying from the pressures on-stage and backstage.
For Nina, it's an obsession for perfection.* Her director (Vincent Cassel) knows she can nail the star-part of the pure white swan in "Swan Lake," but the vixenish back swan is more of a challenge. "Perfection isn't about control. It's also about letting go." For the more sensuous black swan, Nina is at a loss, so bottled up in being perfect, she's afraid to open up from the discipline. "Live a little," he suggests, telling her to touch herself.
As if there isn't enough self-abuse going on.
The pressures start getting to her. Given to obsessively scratching her shoulder, she develops a rash at her shoulder blades. Toe-nails split. Her fingernails turn bloody (at one point she tears off a length of finger skin down to the second knuckle). She seems to be coming apart at the seams, and if she can't bear up, she'll be replaced like the departing prima Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder**). The number one candidate for the job is Lily (Mila Kunis), an earthy dancer from San Francisco, who typifies the black swan, and who becomes something of a paranoid obsession to Nina from their first glance. By the time Nina actually pulls the bud of a black feather out of her scraped-raw shoulder, it's pretty apparent Nina has crossed a line and, like an exquisite ballet, fantasy has disguised reality.
It's scary, almost a horror film. Aronofsky keeps the film taught, his restless camera taking a position directly behind Nina's head, clod-hopping behind her, seeing what she sees, agitatedly cutting out the dull parts. Then it spins as she does, picking out the neck-snapping details that Nina sees in the blur. Fully a quarter of the film involves a reflective surface (even a shot of Nina looking at her mother's obsessive portraits of her—of course, Mom is trying to "get" daughter perfect, too), even if those mirrors don't always behave well.
And, as he did with The Fountain, Aronofsky proves himself a master of subtle sound-work, using extreme fields to further enhance the disorientation the audience feels inside Nina's head (more than once, I looked to see if there was someone behind me in the theater), and altering reality—making a toe-nail clipper sound like a guillotine, making you feel the gristle of toe-bones as they snap.
And he gets the best out of Portman. It's a technically tough performance—she's in every scene, and her face, typically beautiful in serenity, is constricted in constant struggle, disrupting the planes of her face into a worried mask that seldom shows her at her best, veering into moments of hysteria.
For the sacrifice of art, she's not pretty, nor is the film, despite its subject matter and occasional forays into the dance-fantasy. How can it be? We're not sitting comfortably in the audience, but perched precariously in Nina's whirling head, dizzy with the spin, that even braking to a screeching stop, continues the momentum in our own minds long afterwards.
Black Swan is a Full-Price Ticket.
* I don't want to get too far into this, although I'm sure Aronofsky and his scripters (Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin) probably did. There's something called the "Black Swan Theory," about large, unexpected events and their shock-wave effect on human psyches that must come to grips with it. What's most relevant about it are the ten principles the theory's author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, concocts to create a more predictable world:
- What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become Too Big to Fail.
- No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains.
- People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.
- Do not let someone making an "incentive" bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks.
- Counter-balance complexity with simplicity.
- Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning.
- Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to "restore confidence".
- Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains.
- Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible "expert" advice for their retirement.
- Make an omelette with the broken eggs.
** A glance at the four lead actresses, Portman, Ryder, Kunis, Hershey, and most of the supporting ballerinas reveals that they are all similar-looking women—a long line of raven-haired ingenues, like their own organic mirror images.