Blogging “Black Swan” (Part 2)
Part 1 is here. Picking up where we left off…
• So Nina is about to enter her apartment, and there’s a brief shot out in the hall as she takes a moment to steel herself before she goes in. That just says volumes about how dysfunctional her relationship is with her mom, that Erica’s congratulations are something to be feared. Anyway, Nina turns out not to need the moment, because Erica’s not in. Nina looks in her mom’s bedroom, which is festooned with Erica’s drawings and paintings of her own younger self. As Nina (and the camera) look away, the figure in one of the paintings shifts her eyes, and we hear the female laughter again. Nina does a double take, but the painting is still. From a clinical standpoint, Nina’s mental condition best corresponds with psychosis related to either delusional disorder or brief psychotic disorder, which would presumably be brought on by the stress of the Swan Queen role. She doesn’t have manic episodes, isn’t a drug user, and doesn’t exhibit the antisocial behavior commonly associated with schizophrenia. The laughter we hear is part of Nina’s persecution complex, since it’s often the fate of earnest, intelligent, hard-working girls like her to be mocked by her peers. Many critics compared Black Swan with Roman Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion, starring Catherine Deneuve as a Frenchwoman slowly going insane in her London apartment. The films are quite similar, but I’d steer you toward director Darren Aronofsky 1998 debut film π, or Pi, if you wish. It’s a low-budget thriller about a Jewish mathematician who suffers similar delusions, though of a particularly religious nature. (He also has horrible migraines, and the movie takes you right inside those.) Both π and Black Swan are set in New York, and they both have a street-level viewpoint that makes the hallucinations more powerful when they take hold. The earlier film isn’t too well known, and makes an excellent point for comparison.
• A freshly showered Nina checks herself in her bathroom mirror and for once smiles broadly at what she sees. Not for long, though — a little rattle on the soundtrack accompanies Nina realizing that the rash on her left shoulder has gotten worse. When she hears her mom’s voice, she pushes the clothes hamper up against the door. So much of this movie takes place in bathrooms, because those are the only place where Nina can be by herself. I mentioned David Cronenberg in my review. I specifically had his 1986 version of The Fly in mind, obviously because the hero of that movie watches his body slowly transform into something animal in nature, just as Nina does. Yet it also uses bathrooms the same way. Where are you when you discover that something’s wrong with your body? A lot of the time, you’re in your bathroom. Cronenberg’s movie used bathrooms as a claustrophobic space for its hero to see all the changes his body is undergoing. Nina’s body isn’t actually changing (and she may be experiencing body dysmorphic disorder on top of her psychosis), but the movie uses bathrooms in a different way to underscore Nina’s lack of privacy. Most of the time she’s in public bathrooms, but even in the one in her own house she thinks her mom might barge in. This adds to the movie’s general paranoid feel.
• Ack, then there’s this scene! Erica has arrived at home, all pride and joy as she announces, “My daughter, the Swan Queen!” Barbara Hershey does a little dancerly move as she steps aside to reveal the cake Erica has brought home, adorned with icing roses and ballerina figures. “It’s our favorite, vanilla with strawberry filling!” she says. Note the use of the word “our.” Nina tries to beg off, saying that her stomach is still tied up. The temperature then drops about 40 degrees in the room as Erica moves to throw the cake in the garbage. Nina stops her by profusely apologizing and then licking the icing off her mom’s finger and making a fake yummy sound.
• Nina’s rehearsing the White Swan, and we get our first look at David dancing opposite her. He’s played by Benjamin Millepied, the Frenchman who is one of ballet’s hottest young choreographers (“hot” in the sense of “in demand,” though he’s also a pretty attractive guy). He’s also the choreographer of this film and, as you may have heard, is now Natalie Portman’s fiancé and the father of her unborn child in real life. If you want to see more of his choreography, here’s the last movement of his Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once. Portman and Millepied execute a fairly difficult-looking set of maneuvers together (I wish I had the dance background to describe more fully what they’re doing) until Thomas stops them. He tells Nina — again — that he wants to see her as the Black Swan, “and I know I saw a flash of her yesterday, so get ready to give me more of that bite.” Hee!
• There’s a montage of Nina running through some moves with a coach. If you want to find the mirror motif here in Nina copying the coach’s movements, you can certainly find it. Mirroring is also something that actors frequently do as an exercise, to draw a parallel between two different types of performing artist.
• While Nina’s getting water during a break, she hears a piano playing Tchaikovsky’s music on the rehearsal stage and walks over to see Lily (likely Mila Kunis’ dance double) practicing the Swan Queen role. As she watches, Thomas sidles up to her and approvingly notes Lily’s style, “imprecise but effortless. She’s not faking it.” Martha Nochimson hammered Black Swan on Double X for seeming to depict every female character as needing to be screwed-up to be an artist. I don’t agree. If you take away Nina’s paranoid hallucinations regarding Lily, what you’re left with is a portrait of Lily as a young woman who has an essentially sane and well-adjusted attitude toward her profession. That attitude doesn’t keep her from being a great artist. Ballet tends not to be a haven for free-spirited girls like this with body art (not to mention weaknesses for cheeseburgers, Ecstasy, and sleeping with guys she’s just met), but the movie admits the possibility. It gives you an out, and that’s Lily. Nina watches Lily mess up some of her steps and laugh about it rather than fret.
• Our one glimpse of the put-upon Susie comes as she’s ushering Nina into the star’s dressing room, which she’ll be sharing with Beth. That seems like a recipe for all sorts of awkwardness, but it’s about to be moot. Nina coos over the huge floral bouquet that Thomas has left for her.
• We’re at a ritzy fund-raising party for the ballet company, with Thomas leading Nina up a grand staircase to put her on display for the partygoers. He whispers to her, “We need their cash, so smile.” She won’t be saying anything here. Instead, Thomas gets everyone’s attention and gives a speech that starts out paying tribute to Beth, who’s at the party overly dolled up. David appears to be Beth’s date. I feel like we need more explanation on this point than the movie gives us. As Thomas speaks, Nina notices a hangnail on the middle finger of her right hand. She turns her attention back to the speech as Thomas tells the partygoers that Beth is retiring and will dance her farewell performance as Melpomene. He doesn’t identify the role as the Greek Muse of tragedy who shows up as a character in Beethoven’s sole ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. For what’s coming, tragedy is pretty appropriate. As Thomas gushes over Beth and calls her “my little princess,” Beth decides she can’t take any more and runs out. Thomas then shifts the attention to Nina, who hears Lily laugh at something when Thomas announces Nina’s name. (Lily stops laughing when she sees Veronica giving her a dirty look. Man, that Veronica is just no fun at all.) Nina flashes a nervous, uncomfortable smile under the attention as Thomas gives a toast, “To Beth, to Nina, to beauty!” Gee, would you like some cheese with that toast?
• In the bathroom, Nina tries washing her hands to get rid of the hangnail, but the water alone isn’t doing it. With tense piano music playing on the soundtrack and Lily pounding on the door outside, Nina tries to peel away the hangnail until finally she peels away a whole layer of skin off her finger. She gasps in pain and runs her finger under the tap, but when she stops, there’s no sign of the hangnail or the big red wound that it left. After one screening I attended of this movie, a woman passed by me on the way out and told her date in a freaked-out voice, “I have a hangnail!” Nina notes the strangeness of the disappearing hangnail and wipes her hands on one of those expensive cloth-like disposable bathroom towels. Lily’s voice says “I’m about to burst!” before Nina opens the door to her. Lily greets her warmly as she squeezes in to the bathroom with Nina. She takes off her panties and puts them in her clutch while congratulating Nina and asking solicitously if she’s stressing over it. “I’d be losing my mind,” says Lily a bit anviliciously. Lily asks Nina to stay with her in the ladies’ room and keep her company. While she pees? Nina smiles and says she needs to get back. No sooner is she out the door than Thomas grabs her to show her off some more.
• After the party breaks up, Thomas greets Nina in the foyer of the building. He invites her over for drinks, but then he’s called away to meet with someone, presumably a wealthy donor. He leaves Nina alone in the foyer of the hall, staring up at a grotesque statue of an armless, faceless man with wings. The first time I saw the movie, I was sure that the statue was going to turn its head or flap its wings, and I was prepared to scream like a little girl. Instead, we get Horror Movie Trick No. 1: Nina whips her head around to find Beth standing right behind her and staring in a scarily intense way. There’s a scream-like audio effect to emphasize the shock. Like laughter and yawning, screaming can be contagious. Obviously drunk and with her mascara smeared, Beth lobs an accusation. “What did you do to get this part? Thomas always said you were such a frigid little girl. What made him change his mind? Did you suck his cock?” Nina answers, “Not all of us have to.” Pretty nice comeback, given Nina’s general mental disorder and the fact that she’s just been caught off guard. Of course, Beth is in no shape to appreciate this. She calls Nina a whore. Hmmm, maybe she’s the one who wrote the word “WHORE” on the bathroom mirror. Anyway, Thomas appears to cut this short and tells Beth to pull it together, giving her the same condescending cheek pat that he gave Nina earlier. As he and Nina leave, Beth hovers in the background to say that she’s coming by later. It sounds like a threat.
• I don’t like this next scene. Thomas has taken Nina here to hit on her in a creepy fashion, and it takes all of Vincent Cassel’s skill and charm to keep this character from becoming a cartoon. (The French actor is the son of the famous actor Jean-Pierre Cassel, and has appeared in some of the best French films from the past 15 years, including Hate, Brotherhood of the Wolf, and the recent Mesrine movies. He’s also done work in English before — his weirdest role was as that singing French Robin Hood in the original Shrek.) Thomas asks if Nina’s a virgin, and she says no. I think she’s totally lying. He tells her to go home and touch herself, saying “Live a little.” I liked James Wolcott’s response to this: “Setting the bar low, aren’t we?” Thomas then gives up for some reason and says the doorman will call her a cab.
• Back at home, Nina starts undressing while Erica gets the details from the party (which Nina tried and failed to get her into). Erica makes all these skin-crawling comments: “Guess he wanted you all to himself … He must have been by your side all night.” Sexual jealousy of your own daughter is a very unattractive quality. The more I think about this relationship, the ickier I feel. Over Nina’s protests, Erica starts to unhook Nina’s dress and finds the rash on her shoulder. It seems Nina has a history of compulsively scratching herself that’s consistent with body dysmorphic disorder. Erica immediately switches into crisis management mode, pulling the evening gown off Nina and leaving her stripped down to her underwear. In a voice brimming with disappointment and disgust, she enumerates the ways Nina will hide the rash while leading her almost-naked daughter to the bathroom. She sits Nina down and starts clipping her fingernails, saying “It’s the role isn’t it? I knew it would be too much.” Thanks for the vote of confidence, mom. Erica lives vicariously through her daughter’s success as a dancer, but then she’s always bitter about it because that success isn’t her own. She’ll always be miserable. So will her kid. She clips too close to Nina’s finger, and Nina lets out an “Ouch!” Erica smothers the affected finger with a kiss, and the scene ends with the sharp, insistent sound of the next nail being clipped.