Andrés Heinz, Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin, and Darren Aronofsky,
In Black Swan we meet Nina, a ballerina who has just been cast in
a dual role in Swan Lake. The company director is sure that she
can play the White Swan, as her technique is flawless and she embodies
the timorous maidenliness the part calls for, but is concerned that she
won't be able to summon the passion needed to play the seductive Black
Swan. He and Nina's vivacious understudy Lily try to get her to loosen
up, unaware that Nina is secretly crazy and that "letting go" means
letting that out.
Now, let's see. Identity invested in being able to perform at an elite
level, tightly wound, socially awkward, snickered at for her apparent
sexlessness, presumed to be kind of robotic but actually roiling with
emotional instability... yeah, relating to Nina wasn't going to be a
problem. But it wasn't just my adolescent self that she reminded me of,
especially when she started to physically transform into the Black Swan.
At that point it was hard to miss the overlap between Black Swan
and one of the foundational texts of my adolescence. Here, see if this
A little boy has just watched his father beat his mother to death. As
he stands there, stock still, his adult self, visiting this memory, is
outraged at his younger self's passivity. "Cry!" he demands. "Or
scream! Shout! Do something! Do anything, blast you!
The boy then screams "RAAAARRRRR" as he transforms into a gigantic
monster, the personification of a three-year-old's rage. Then transforms
back. "There," he says calmly. "I reacted. A nuclear reaction. Happy
In case you don't recognize it, that is The Incredible Hulk #377.
And Black Swan offers basically the same fantasy as the
on Hulk. Why "fantasy," given that both for Bruce Banner and Nina
Sayers their barely-repressed shadow selves are depicted as monstrous and
their existence living with these monsters as a kind of hell? Two reasons.
One, the monsters get shit done. Whatever forces array themselves against
Banner, Hulk smash. And when Nina needs to put on a performance beyond
her normal capabilities, the Black Swan leaves the audience stunned.
Two — you've heard of the
An expression of dismay or self-deprecation that just so happens to sneak
in a reference to one's privilege ("Having a Lamborghini is such a pain in
the ass — cops are always pulling me over") or accomplishments
("Tripped on the way up the stairs to get my Oscar! Real smooth!")? To
lament that you're tormented by the terrifying darkness within you is, in
a way, to flatter yourself for your emotional depth. At least, that was
my experience. I was basically bipolar until I was 25, and while being
regularly gripped by suicidal despair is pretty low on my list of
experiences I'd like to repeat, I can't deny that there was a stupid
adolescent romance to the idea that even though on the outside I seemed
like just a nerd, on the inside I was secretly a doomed tortured artist.
I wound up discovering that my wild mood crashes were not purely
endogenous but rather a product of the fact that my life actually did suck
in a lot of ways, and that once I had reason to believe that I would not
in fact be foreveralone.jpg I could proceed on a more even keel. So
what's the source of Nina's problems? Black Swan's answer is
pretty scattered. Her hallucinations point to schizophrenia, but the
movie also throws some blame at her mother, who is such a helicopter
parent that poor Nina can't even finish touching herself in the morning
because Mom is sleeping in a chair by her bedside, and who is enough of a
hysteric to pull the "oh, well if you're not hungry then I guess I'll
take the cake I got you and throw it in the trash" routine. (She also
seems to have gone to her plastic surgeon and said, "Give me the Catface
Meowmers." Shudder.) Then there's the suggestion that Nina's real
problem is that in her quest to reach the top of the ballet world, she's
pushed herself to the breaking point — that the strain of her
perfectionism has driven her mad. There is something to the notion that
the drive to be the very best at something is itself a kind of mental
disorder, but this isn't really explored in any coherent way.
But I reckon that Black Swan isn't really trying to be coherent.
I'd seen a couple of Aronofsky films before watching this one. π
was about a guy who gets really into math and goes crazy; the movie is
less a coherent statement about mathematics or psychosis than it is a
delivery system for flashy montage sequences revolving around those
themes. Requiem for a Dream was about four people who get into
drugs and go crazy; the movie is less a coherent statement about drugs
or psychosis than it is a delivery system for flashy montage sequences
revolving around those themes. Black Swan is... you see where I'm
going. I came away with the sense that the organizing principle of the
film was "All right, so what else would be cool? I know, doppelgängers!
Doppelgängers are trippy — let's have some of those!
And... ooh, how about some hallucinated wounds? That'll be creepy!"
And Aronofsky is right about that last part, at least. The horror
sequences are indeed horrifying — I had no problem watching all
kinds of gore in Game of Thrones, but Nina
pulling at a torn cuticle made me cover my eyes and curl into a ball until
it was over. (I have the same reaction to people in movies or on TV
shaving, or cutting their fingernails, or chopping vegetables. You just
know the ouchies are coming.) But as for the rest... well, let me put it
this way. π's opening credits begin with the single-character
title in white, followed by the number that symbol represents quickly
scrolling onto the screen, line after line of digits. But look at those
digits. After 3.14159265, the next digit is 2, when it should be 3. Then
6 where a 5 should be. Then 3 instead of 8. The number on the title
screen isn't actually pi! It just kind of looks like pi!
How about the ballet in Black Swan? Initially I was quite
impressed, as normally I don't get ballet at all — expressive
dance in general does not express anything to me — but I found
these sequences kind of thrilling to watch. But precisely because ballet
does nothing for me, I examined my response more closely, and realized that,
no, what I'd found thrilling to watch were actually the swoopy camera moves!
It just felt like it was the ballet! And at the end of the movie,
with Nina's last lines still ringing in our ears, we might well think that
we've just seen a character study about a young woman torn apart by art
and perfectionism and mental illness. But looking back, no, the story
isn't cohesive enough to constitute an actual character study. It just
kind of seems like one.