Blogging “Black Swan” (Part 1)
I had a ton of thoughts about Black Swan that I couldn’t include in my review of the film. Now that it’s out on DVD this week, I thought I’d work out my all-consuming obsession with the movie in a series of blog posts to unpack the meaning in this heavily coded work. SPOILER ALERT: These posts will give away everything that happens in the movie.
• Over black title cards, the movie begins with the music from the prologue to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, with the clarinet sounding the main theme. There’s a couple of sound effects mixed in: The beating of swan wings and a woman laughing. These are leitmotifs in the film, and I’ll have more to say on those. The lights come up on Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) dancing. From a long shot of her posed, the movie cuts to a pair of feet doing a series of pointe maneuvers and then in one fluid take pulls back until Portman is in full figure. In the old days, such a shot would be used to prove that the star is indeed doing the dancing, but now technology can fool the eye, and I detected a slight but noticeable drop in the frame rate as Portman’s upper body dropped into the frame. That’s probably where they cut. As the music takes an ominous turn, a POV shot stalks Nina until it’s revealed that she’s in the presence of Rothbart (Sergio Torrado), the sorcerer in the ballet who curses the White Swan. The music becomes more frenzied until Rothbart lays his curse. You can take this scene literally, as Nina tells her mom later on that this is the dream that she had. You can also take it as the equivalent of a ballet’s prologue, an opening set piece that’s not there to advance the story so much as set the tone for what will follow. There’s a third way, to take it, though. If you think of mental illness as a curse, then this opening scene is a metaphor for the condition being visited upon Nina that will destroy her sanity. That’s how I take it.
• Nina is already awake in bed when someone her mom opens her door to let in the light. She sits up with a smile, and as she moves her neck, we can hear popping sounds. The popping continues as we see her move her feet. There’s a lot more where this is coming from.
• First of many mirrored surfaces: Nina does stretching exercises in front of a tripartite mirror. She describes the preceding prologue as her dream, but she mentions that the choreography is different, “more like the Bolshoi’s.”
• Nina’s mom Erica (Barbara Hershey) serves her breakfast: a single poached egg and half a grapefruit, no sugar. Nina looks down at the grapefruit and says, “Oooh, look how pink! So pretty!” She and Erica say, “Pretty!” in some sort of shared private joke. I don’t like Portman’s reading of that first line. The movie does have a pattern of Nina being emotionally stunted in girlhood, but Portman can’t help but make the line seem ironic. Don’t worry, though. She gets much better. Nina says that the director has promised to feature her more this season, which prompts a backhanded compliment from Erica: “You’re the most dedicated dancer in the troupe.” Two more motifs are introduced, as Erica takes note of the rash developing behind Nina’s left shoulder and then calls her “sweet girl.”
• Another mirrored surface: Nina sees herself in the window of the subway car as she rides to work. The beating of swan wings can be heard again, though it’s disguised by the clickety-clack of the train. Yet another leitmotif makes its first appearance here, as Nina sees a double: a girl in the next car who’s built like her and wearing her hair tied back in a bun, just as Nina does. Ballerinas are often called “bunheads” because they wear their hair that way. It’s mostly for the benefit of the audience, which wants to see the dancer’s body without being distracted by hair flying around. The other girl brushes a strand of hair back over her right ear, and Nina does the same over her left. Nina can’t see her face, though. She watches the girl get off the train.
• Nina walks toward Lincoln Center. The center is home to several ballet companies in real life. The identity of Nina’s company is never revealed; I don’t think too many ballet companies would want themselves depicted as having the shenanigans that go on in this movie. Nina sees the face of Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) on the big poster outside the building.
• Tons of mirrored surfaces in the soloists’ dressing room, where Nina is making herself up while the other dancers gossip amongst themselves. It’s mostly about Beth refusing to take the hint about retirement. A bitchy dancer named Veronica (Ksenia Solo) says the company’s broke and “No one comes to see [Beth] anymore.” After some more catty jokes about how old Beth is getting, Nina comes to Beth’s defense, sort of, by saying “It’s sad.” When Veronica asks why, Nina seems surprised that she said those words out loud, but she recovers and says Beth is a beautiful dancer. She also notes that “Fonteyn danced into her 50s.” For newcomers to ballet, that would be the legendary Dame Margot Fonteyn, who was on the point of retirement when her famous partnership with the Soviet defector Rudolf Nureyev rejuvenated her. Here’s a clip of them together in Paul Czinner’s 1959 film of Swan Lake.
• And in walks Lily (Mila Kunis), who is probably the girl from the subway, especially since she mentions missing her stop and having to walk in from 79th Street. Lincoln Center takes up 62nd through 66th Streets in New York, but that’s not too bad a walk given how short the city blocks are in Manhattan. Nina nods her head to confirm that this is the soloists’ dressing room, and as Lily takes her spot at the vanity, we hear the other dancers whisper among each other, the words “San Francisco” being audible.
• There’s a nice montage of Nina taking a new pair of pointe shoes out of the wrapper and breaking them in. I remember a similar montage in 2000’s Center Stage, a much cozier and more conventional film about ballet.
• While the company is doing their exercises, the Slavic ballet mistress walks by and becomes the first of many characters to tell Nina to relax. I like the way the vibe in the room changes when company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) walks in, as most of the dancers take off their warmup gear and all of them go about their business with a new awareness. The guy’s French, so pronounce his name TO-mah Le-RWAH. The point of this scene is mostly just for Thomas to give a plot summary of Swan Lake for the benefit of those of us who don’t know ballet. Sadly, that included me when I saw the film. He does say that his new version of Swan Lake will be different: “We strip it down, make it visceral and real.” The mirror theme gets hammered a bit here, as when Thomas asks who can embody both swans, the camera switches to a shot of him reflected in two mirrors as he says the words, “and the black.” While he’s doing this, he goes around tapping some of the soloists (none of them characters we know) on the shoulder. Then he announces that the untapped girls are to audition for him.
• While Nina is sitting on the ground practicing her upper-body movements, she hears a noise down the hall. She gets up to investigate, and through a crack in Beth’s dressing room door hears screaming, swearing, and the sound of Beth trashing her own room. Then the door opens and Beth comes out. She sees Nina and blasts out, “What?” before stomping off down the hall. Winona Ryder’s presence in this movie is rather poignant. Not only is she roughly the same size and coloring as Portman, but during the height of her stardom in the 1990s she was famous for playing young women as focused, intense and tightly wound as Nina, and occasionally as tormented and self-lacerating. (See: Heathers, Beetlejuice, Little Women, and Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael.) Now here she is playing the older woman who’s being pushed out on account of her age.
• Wow, Veronica must be right about the company’s finances, because the dressing room door doesn’t shut even though — or perhaps because — Beth slammed it behind her. Nina walks in and sees the same poster of Beth that’s on the outside of the building. She looks through Beth’s things and pockets one of her lipsticks. There’s an exhalation effect on the soundtrack when Nina unrolls the lipstick. The soundtrack plays a rather ornate theme that the movie associates with Beth.
• Nina’s audition doesn’t go well. As she’s dancing the White Swan, there’s a shot of Thomas in the foreground watching her, with Nina reflected in the mirror behind him. She’s initially out of focus as she performs a series of complicated maneuvers (here’s a spot where the filmmakers probably used a dance double), but as she moves to the other side of the room (and is briefly blocked by Thomas’ head), her reflection comes into focus. Thomas tells her that he knows she can dance the White Swan, but wants to see her Black Swan. We get a shot of Veronica giving Nina the stink-eye while Nina goes to take her position. She starts the steps, and Thomas yells at her like a coach: “Seduce us! Attack it!” The camera assumes Nina’s POV as she does the famous series of fouettés from the ballet, whirling around 360 degrees in place. (My ignorance of ballet terminology reared its head in my review, as I misidentified her spins as pirouettes.) Anyway, the POV shot is straight out of Michael Powell’s 1948 film The Red Shoes, though Darren Aronofsky says that classic ballet movie wasn’t a big influence on Black Swan. Near the end, Lily walks in, apologizing for her lateness once again. Nina is distracted by the entrance and stops short. Thomas introduces Lily as the new dancer, “straight off the plane from San Francisco.” Nina offers to go again, but Thomas says he’s seen enough and sends her away. While he’s asking Veronica up, we first see that Lily has a pair of lilies tattooed on her back. Nina walks out crushed.
• Shot of Nina’s feet in a bathroom stall at the theater. She’s facing the bowl, and for a brief time I wonder if she’s actually a dude. That certainly would make this a whole different film. However, she’s probably just throwing up, which wouldn’t be an unnatural reaction to the situation. She uses one of her feet to flush the toilet (which you shouldn’t do unless it’s specially designed to be flushed that way), and walks out.
• Another double. As Nina walks under some of that scaffolding that’s ever present on the sidewalks of New York, she’s distracted by her mom ringing her cell phone (generic ring tone). She looks up and sees a dark-haired woman standing at the end of the sidewalk. Here’s where all the brunette actresses pays off. Nina seems to recognize her, but we wonder whether that’s Lily or Beth. It is in fact Nina herself, dressed in a seductive black outfit and casting a menacing glance at Nina as she walks toward her. However, when the camera switches away from Nina’s point of view, the woman in black is clearly a passerby. She’s played by Sarah Lane, one of the dance doubles as well as a stunt double in the climactic scene when Nina throws her doppelgänger through a mirror. Sarah Lane is currently making incendiary claims about how little dancing Natalie Portman did for the role. Given that seemingly everyone involved with the film has come to the star’s defense, you can put me down as skeptical. Nina being tormented by doubles of herself places this movie in a proud literary tradition stretching all the way back to Poe (“William Wilson”) and Dostoyevsky (The Double). It’s hard to believe that no one thought to connect this tradition before with Swan Lake, a ballet in which the same dancer portrays good and evil versions of the same character.
• Nina gets home, where Erica has already heard about the audition (through her connection, an administrator named Susie) and wants to hear how it went. Nina says “It was fine” and then crumbles and throws her arms around her mom, crying piteously. Shortly thereafter she’s preparing to dance the coda in front of her mirror, while Erica is on the phone haranguing Susie about Thomas springing an audition like that. What kind of favor does Susie owe Erica that she has to take all this crap from a nosy stage mom? Anyway, a grim, grinding musical theme with a low repeated series of notes (technical name: ostinato) pops up on the soundtrack while Nina practices her fouettés. Eventually we hear something snap and Nina pull up in pain. Offscreen, Erica asks Nina if she’s all right, and Nina says she’s fine (again). She takes off her shoe and sees that she has split the nail on her big toe. It’s a gruesome-looking injury — every time I saw the film, I could hear the audience take a sharp breath in when they saw the nail. However, I understand that dancers are rather relieved when they see this, because it means the injury is not more serious.
• Nina’s sitting up in bed while her mom applies peroxide and bandages to her toe. She’s resolving to petition Thomas for the Swan Queen role in the morning, while Erica tries to console her, saying “As you start getting older, there’s all this ridiculous pressure.” This line tells us that Erica is a former dancer herself, but it also usefully reminds us that Nina isn’t young by the standards of the ballet world, and there isn’t much time left for her to make that leap to stardom. And yet Nina is still being tucked into bed by her mom. Erica opens and winds up a music box that plays Swan Lake while a ceramic figurine of a ballet dancer revolves. She strokes her daughter’s hair and tells her everything will be better tomorrow, and here she comes off like a loving, supportive mom. The craziness comes later.
• Again we’re on the subway, with Nina applying Beth’s lipstick. She waits outside Thomas’ office, and the unnatural red tint of the lipstick makes her look like a 14-year-old who’s gotten into her mom’s makeup drawer. She’s also biting her nails. Anyway, Thomas comes by and agrees to see her. She tells him she finished the coda, but Thomas quickly informs her that he’s chosen Veronica and dismisses her with a patronizing little pat on her left cheek with his right hand. (That’s his thing.) He holds his office door open, but when she moves to go, he closes it. That’s when he calls her out about showing up at his office with her lipstick on and not having the nerve to ask for the role. She does ask, and he tells her (not for the last time, regrettably) that she obsesses over technical perfection and never loses herself in the role. He makes an excellent point when he says, “Perfection is not about control. It’s also about letting go.” Then he screws it up by grabbing her and kissing her. Nina responds to the unwanted sexual advance by biting Thomas on the lip and getting the hell out of his office, with a look in her eye that says, “Did I just do that?”
• Nina’s again stretched out on the floor, probably wondering how much longer she’s going to last with this company. Down the hall, Veronica notices Nina staring at her and complains to one of her friends about Nina freaking her out. Another girl comes by and says the roles have been posted. Nina’s not even going to look, and as Veronica passes her, Nina stops her and offers her congratulations. Veronica breaks into a half smile, like she’s not sure whether to believe this but thinking it might be true. She goes off to look at the postings. Oh, she won’t be happy. Sure enough, Nina hasn’t gotten too far down the hallway before Veronica comes back and angrily shouts “Hey!” at her. She accuses Nina of playing a sick joke and spits “Fuck you!” at her before storming down the hall, bumping Nina’s shoulder as she passes. Nina goes over to look at the postings, and we hear the swan wings beating again as Nina reads her name next to the role of Swan Queen. I love Clint Mansell’s music during all this. It starts with piano chords playing in a slow, precise rhythm, then during the Nina-Veronica confrontation it becomes just the rhythm tapped out ominously in the timpani. That rhythm then turns into a triumphant march as Nina realizes that she’s just landed her dream role. A shell-shocked Nina accepts congratulatory hugs from the other female dancers.
• In the first of many scenes that take place in a bathroom, Nina goes into a stall in the rehearsal hall’s ladies’ room and calls her mom. She says she’s fine (there’s that word again), and then breaks the news that she’s the Swan Queen. Natalie Portman breaks my heart a little when she says, “He picked me, mommy!” As Erica gushes indistinctly over the phone, Nina ends the call and hangs up. Portman’s reaction here is genius; she doesn’t break down even though she’s shedding tears of joy. That’s exactly right. This is the happiest moment of Nina’s life, and yet even now she can’t fully let herself go.
• Then she opens the door of the stall and sees the word “WHORE” written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. Is that real? Nina’s alone, and we didn’t hear anyone else walk into the bathroom. On the other hand, Veronica sure looks vengeful enough to do something like that.
I’ll be back in 24 hours with Part 2.