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TBTS Reviews: Black Swan

December 22, 2010

Much ink (digital or otherwise) has been spilled regarding the sex in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. It seems all anyone can talk about is the allegedly scandalous lesbian scene between the film’s two stars, Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. This is unfortunate, because I’m here to tell you three things:

  1. The scene is very short.
  2. Yes, it’s pretty hot, but…
  3. It’s SO not what the movie is about, and is actually quite creepy in context.

In Black Swan I saw a story about the struggle to create art. Not to mimic or flawlessly execute prescribed actions, but to actually create, to express oneself wholly and without limitations. It is one thing to spend one’s life perfecting a set of movements, to engage in the ritual of one’s craft, developing muscle memory, and strengthening the body. It is quite another to develop and express something new, something from inside oneself, something that renders one immortal in her field. Black Swan shows us the toll such expression and creation can take on our bodies and minds.

In the film, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina. She is talented, dedicated to the point of obsession, and cripplingly shy. She lives with her overbearing, bi-polar mother (Barbara Hershey) whose attentions are alternately sweet and alarmingly cruel. Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the director of the ballet company, announces that their next production will be Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and holds auditions to replace his aging prima ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder). Nina desperately wants the lead role of the Swan Queen, but the role requires a performer to play both the White Swan, an innocent and graceful creature of beauty and hope and love, and her twin the Black Swan, the embodiment of guile and seduction.

Nina’s movements exemplify the beauty and purity of the White Swan and she easily impresses Thomas with her audition. But her virginal and rote portrayal of the Black Swan leaves much to be desired. Thomas pressures her to expand her experiences, to explore her sexuality to help her understand the role. Nina’s life is further complicated by the arrival of a new ballerina to the company, the free-spirited Lily (Mila Kunis). As Nina tries harder and harder to grasp the nuances of the Black Swan, her mind begins to get away from her. Physical imperfections become amplified as her relationship with her mother begins to collapse. Nina sees things, sees herself in mirrors, and in other people’s faces (notably Lily’s). She begins to see Lily as more and more of a threat thanks to Lily’s effortless drifting between the innocence of the White Swan and the sensuality of the Black Swan.

Inevitably, things culminate in a confrontation that I’ll not detail here. Suffice to say that it is not necessarily between the people you may think. The film owes a lot to Aronofsky’s pacing of Nina’s descent into obsession (madness?) as she tries to wrench from herself the feelings she needs to properly dance the Black Swan. The ideas of duality between White and Black are further explored by the presence of mirrors in nearly every scene. Reflective surfaces abound even in the form of subway car windows, baths, and a striking vanity in Nina’s apartment. Of course, most ballet companies have mirrors in their rehearsal spaces as a practical matter, but they are used to great effect in presenting what Nina begins to see as another self that she believes is capable of embodying the Black Swan.

As I said, the film is about the struggle to create art, perhaps even the ugly side of creation. Even the simple backstage hostility and backbiting among the ballerinas plays a part in showing the audience the emotional toll creation takes on human beings. They fight with words and glances to undermine each other and gain advantage. Jealousy and envy exist between Nina and past-her-prime Beth, leading to Beth’s suicide attempt and Nina’s guilt over having replaced her idol. Nina worries that she herself is merely the next in a line of prima ballerinas who are cast aside when they reach a certain age. This contributes to her struggle in surprising ways as she attempts to connect with Beth through material things.

It would be so easy to go all Maxim Magazine here and spend paragraph after paragraph detailing the scenes between two of Hollywood’s most beautiful young actresses. And I admit I half-jokingly expressed a desire to see this film based solely on such things. But I am very glad to say that the hype is just the hype, and that this film is so much more than tawdry girl-on-girl action. This film will stick with you and, honestly, you probably won’t even remember the sex scene by the end.

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