Blogging “Black Swan” (Part 4)
• In the aftermath of yet another humiliation at Thomas’ hands, Nina sits on the floor of the rehearsal space and tries not to cry. Then she notices another dancer standing in the shadows of the entryway and asks who that is. I swear it’s Natalie Portman’s face on the person in the shadows who says, “Hey,” (and the tense music on the soundtrack backs me up), but as she steps into the light, it’s Lily, who will dominate this section of the film. She puts a cigarette into her mouth as she asks if everything’s okay. Nina tells her she can’t smoke in the studio, but Lily says, “I won’t tell if you won’t.” Anyone who’s spent any time around ballet dancers knows that they smoke like proverbial chimneys as an unhealthy way of keeping their weight down. She gives Nina a cig (accepted) and lights her up while saying she thinks Nina will be amazing. Picking up on the air of doom and gloom around Nina, Lily asks if Thomas’ playing too rough. She’s really very supportive as she calls Thomas a prick and says “he’s not all warm and fuzzy.” Nina defends him, saying “You don’t know him.” Lily looks surprised and delighted as she exclaims, “Someone’s hot for teacher!” Being teased again, Nina picks up and leaves, with Lily protesting that she’s just playing.
• Nina sits in her bathtub looking miserable, and she tries the masturbation thing again. This time it doesn’t take, and Nina rolls her eyes as she gives up and lowers her head underneath the water. She opens her eyes and we see a POV shot of her bathroom from under the surface. Then she closes her eyes, and two drops of blood fall into the water. She opens them back up and, Horror Movie Trick No. 4, her double is standing menacingly over her. Nina quickly surfaces, only to find the double has vanished. Scared, she notices blood coming from two fingers on her left hand and starts feeling the rash again on her left shoulder. Out of the tub, she reaches into her medicine cabinet for the scissors and starts clipping her nails, even though they’re already down to her skin. The camera pans from her tense face to the bathroom mirror, where her reflection is glaring demonically back at her. I think Portman must have just changed the expression on her face in the split-second it took for the camera to move from her face to the mirror. Nice. Anyway, the reflection deliberately clips the finger instead of the nail to draw blood, and Nina’s face suddenly drops the glare to frantically trying to stop the bleeding. As Erica calls from outside asking what Nina’s doing in there, Nina applies pressure to her finger, and her entire body convulses, perhaps from the pain but more likely from the demons running loose in her brain. The glare on her face comes back.
• At the next day’s rehearsal, Thomas runs Nina and David through their paces. The first time, we don’t see the steps, just Thomas sitting in the auditorium seats in the background while Nina and David move in the foreground, too close for us to see. We do hear them breathing hard, though, and the sound of their footsteps on the wooden floor. This is one thing I love about the movie, that we get to hear these sounds and see the dancers sweat, because one of the things that ballet is about is pretending that these things don’t exist. Thomas just says, “Again,” and the dancers run through the steps again, this time framed so that we can see them. I’m dead sure that this is Portman 100% of the way here. He says “Again” once more, and they start until Nina breaks off and asks if he has any corrections. At first I’m afraid that Thomas is going to start in again on Nina’s frigid perfectionism, but this time he’s on about Lily reporting the contents of her earlier conversation with Nina to him. He either tries tough love (the charitable interpretation) or acts like a total skidmark (my interpretation) as he upbraids Nina for being a whiny little baby, over Nina’s protests that she wasn’t actually complaining and that Lily shouldn’t have told on her. Thomas tells her “You could be brilliant, but you’re a coward,” and when Nina apologizes, he blasts her for being weak.
• The camera follows Nina into the soloists’ dressing room, and the frame is elegantly broken into four parts: From left to right, Veronica addressing Nina, Lily (with her back to Nina) reflected in both the big dressing-room mirror and her own personal mirror, the back of Nina’s head, and Nina reflected in full figure in a mirror on the right. Veronica goes all snarky while Nina demands to talk to Lily this second. Veronica makes an “Owwww!” sound like she’s anticipating a catfight, but Lily tells her to shut up and gets up from her chair. They walk out in the hallway as Lily ties her hair back. Nina confronts her about what she said to Thomas, demanding to know why Thomas would speak to her about Nina’s mental state. Lily sarcastically apologizes, “Excuse me, Your Highness.” (Hey, that’s a Natalie Portman movie coming out next week!) Nina abruptly tells Lily she shouldn’t have said anything, and Lily says “Okay” with a contemptuous snarl that lets us know she’s thinking, “Bitch.”
• A wordless little scene intended to increase the air of paranoia in the movie has Nina sitting on the train car opposite the only other occupant, an elderly well-dressed man who is puckering and licking his lips at her. I understand (and readily believe) that such people were much more prevalent on the New York City subway in the days before Giuliani, but you do still run into these types on the train. Nina is grossed out and appalled by his behavior and tries to look away. The old man escalates, rubbing his crotch and making kissy-kissy noises, the latter of which segues neatly into…
• The clicking sound of Nina applying a cigarette lighter to the ribbons on her pointe shoes, which is something that dancers do to deal with fraying. She’s sitting on the floor of her apartment while Erica is in the chair on the opposite side of the room, reflected in the left panel of the tripartite mirror that we saw earlier. Erica’s asking whether Thomas has come onto Nina, citing his reputation for doing so. Nina finally lies and says he hasn’t. Erica says, “I don’t want you to make the same mistake I made.” Nina takes her meaning and sarcastically says, “Thanks.” Erica tries to take it back: “I just mean regarding my career.” Under her breath, Nina says, “What career?” Oh, what’d you do that for? I mean, I understand you’re smarting over being called a mistake, but this is a bad move. Sure enough, the temperature drops again as Erica tells Nina, “The one I gave up to have you.” In what is a strong move for her, Nina points out that at the time she got pregnant, Erica was 28 and only in the corps de ballet. Yeah, if that’s the case, then a major career in ballet is probably not going to happen. Nina actually stops herself before she gets to the word “corps,” but it’s too late. Erica retaliates the way she knows how, asking Nina, “How’s your skin?” She demands to see, standing over Nina and demanding that she take off her shirt. Nina stiffens her resolve and says no, and before this scene can get any uglier, the doorbell rings, thank God. Erica goes to the door and has a barely audible conversation with whoever’s there before closing it. Nina asks who that was, and Erica dismisses it as no one. Nina goes to see for herself.
• Out in the hall, Nina greets the dark-haired woman standing at the elevator. It’s Lily, here to apologize for tattling, though she’s interrupted by Erica calling Nina to dinner. Nina impatiently asks her mom for some distance, and as Erica retreats back into the room, Lily notes of Erica, “She’s a trip.” Nina asks suspiciously how Lily knows her address. “I have my ways,” says Lily sinisterly before breaking character and saying she got the info from Susie. Mila Kunis’ performance hasn’t really gotten its due. This is a difficult role. In some scenes, Lily is supposed to clearly be a nice young woman with a few vices; in others, she’s clearly the demon of Nina’s imagination; and in still others, we’re supposed to be unsure as to which she is. Kunis doesn’t put a foot wrong, and when you contrast this performance with her comic roles in stuff like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, her work here is even more impressive. Back in the movie, Lily tries to make a peace offering by inviting Nina to dinner, and when Nina demurs, switches the invitation to drinks. Erica opens the door again and says Nina needs to rest. Without dropping her smile, Lily breathes, “Jesus.” That’s all the impetus Nina needs. She grabs her coat and announces that she’s going out, with Erica calling after them with a protest that Nina’s rehearsing on the stage tomorrow. Nina’s so keen to get away that she tells Lily to take the stairs.
• At some moderately trendy Manhattan restaurant, Lily is saying, “It’s so gross,” referring to Thomas’ habit of calling Beth “my little princess.” I’m with Lily on this. Nina thinks that name is only for Beth, but Lily thinks he’ll be calling Nina that any day. “You just got to let him lick your pussy,” she says, which is funny, but perhaps she plants the idea for what happens between Lily and Nina later. Then there’s this hilarious exchange between Lily and the waiter bringing her cheeseburger. Him: “Let me know if that’s juicy enough for you.” Her, sultrily: “Oh, I will.” Him: “Got enough cheese?” Her: “No, but you do.” Waiter dude takes the hint and scurries along. Lily moves her dish from the side of the table across from Nina to the side next to hers. She takes a slip-dress out of her clutch and offers it to Nina. “I always carry a spare, in case I wake up somewhere unexpected,” she says taking a bite out of her cheeseburger, which we can see is served on sandwich bread instead of a bun. That would make the burger marginally less fattening. Lily asks how Thomas is, and when Nina says she doesn’t want to talk, Lily says “Okay” with a “Have I offended?” look on her face that Mila Kunis probably got from her sitcom years. It works. She then becomes the latest person to tell Nina she needs to relax. She goes into her cigarette case and produces two capsules, giving one to Nina and one to herself, promising that it’s pure. Nina innocently asks what it is. Lily says, “Are you kidding? You’ve never rolled?” Ecstasy is probably the last thing a psychotic person needs, but Lily has no way of knowing about Nina’s mental condition. Nina asks how long the high lasts, and Lily tells her two hours, tops. Nina politely declines, so Lily takes the capsule back without making a fuss.
• In the restaurant’s bathroom, Nina is putting on the slip-dress over her top. This scene is a great argument against green fluorescent light. After all, if Natalie Portman looks terrible in it, what chance do you or I have? The slip-dress is black, as opposed to Nina’s pink coat and white top. The clothes in this movie have encoded meanings, but I’m not a clothes guy. If you want a full analysis of the costumes in this movie, check out the piece on Chris Laverty’s blog Clothes on Film, a new site that’s rapidly becoming indispensable. Nina notes the rash on her shoulder, still visible through the two layers, when her phone rings. Instead of the generic ring tone we heard earlier, we now hear the theme from Swan Lake. That ring tone is really annoying. The call is from Erica. Who else would it be? Nina covers up the rash by pulling on her gray sweater over the dress.
• Nina comes out of the bathroom to find Lily chatting up two guys at the bar. From across the room, she sees Lily emptying the Ecstasy capsule into a cocktail meant for Nina. (I wish I knew enough about mixed drinks to identify the cocktail here. It’s red, served with ice and a lime wedge.) As Lily stirs the powder into the liquor, she sees Nina, who tries to leave for the evening. Lily protests that she just ordered drinks and introduces the guys as Tom and Jerry, though “Jerry” (Sebastian Stan) quickly corrects that his name is actually Andrew. Nina again tries to beg off, repeating her mom’s warning that they’re on stage tomorrow. Lily, who knows by now not to tease Nina, asks in a wheedling tone whether Nina intends to go home to mommy. Given the scene we saw earlier, who can blame Nina for wanting to stay out a bit longer? Lily also repeats Thomas’ earlier line, “Live a little.” Nina eyeballs the drink and asks again how long the Ecstasy lasts. Lily repeats, “Couple of hours, tops.” Nina says okay, and they all drink.
• In a booth later on, Andrew says, “You still haven’t told me who you are.” Nina says, “I’m a dancer.” Andrew means her name. Nina’s sense of self is practically nonexistent. Tom asks if the two women are sisters, and Nina says “no” at the same time that Lily says “yes.” Nina finally straightens out that they dance in the same company. Tom notes the resemblance between them, and Lily, displaying all the social skills that Nina lacks, banters back that Tom and “Jerry” must be gay lovers. Andrew says he’s never been to the ballet. Lily: “Then you are definitely not gay.” Tom thinks ballet is boring, and Nina takes offense. Again with the social skills, Lily puts out the fire by saying ballet isn’t for everyone. I like the way this movie recognizes that ballet is just one more niche in the wider culture, even though it’s the whole world to a lot of people in it. (For contrast, look at The Red Shoes. Ballet seems to be the only thing in the world of that film. It’s as if nobody goes to the theater or the symphony, much less the movies.) Nina offers to comp Tom and Andrew’s tickets to the ballet, and they agree while the looks on their faces say that’s never going to happen. Tom and Lily leave to order more drinks at the bar, and I notice what a nice job the Chemical Brothers, who handle the music in this part of the film, have done incorporating the score’s themes into the club music that would be playing in a restaurant like this. Andrew asks Nina what the company is working on, and after ignoring another call from her mom, she tells him Swan Lake and gives him a brief summary of the plot. The X kicks in as Nina looks down at her hands, which are photographed to seem unnaturally long, like swan wings. When Lily gets back, Nina leans over and brushes her head on Lily’s shoulder, and for a second I think they’re going to make out right there. Instead, Lily recognizes that Nina is rolling, and takes her to the dance floor.
• I love this montage. The house music (by the Chemical Brothers) is cranked to deafening levels as Nina, Lily, Tom, and Andrew hit the dance floor in this club that they’ve gone to. As the lights flicker, much of what we see isn’t actually moving footage but still photos, bathed in alternately red or green light, which is one reason why the sequence seems so fast. So many movie scenes that take place in dance clubs are obviously happening on sets, but this scene captures the feel of it. You can smell the sweat and feel the proximity of the other clubgoers. Only if you run the sequence slowly through your DVD player can you tell that Andrew tries to kiss Nina and gets slapped for his trouble. The music slows down, as house music tends to do before speeding back up, and there’s an inserted shot of Nina in Black Swan makeup while she wanders around on the dance floor. Amid all the music, both Nina’s name and the phrase “sweet girl” are just barely audible in the sound mix. Then we hear Lily call Nina’s name, and the two women dance to the speeded-up beats until Nina either embraces Lily or falls into her arms.
• We cut to the men’s room in the club, where Nina is in a stall making out with some random dude. He bangs her head against the wall, while at the same time a toilet flushes somewhere. The noise and the impact seem to bring Nina back to where she is, and she gets out of the guy’s grasp. The camera tracks as she walks out of the bathroom, past the line of women waiting to use the ladies’ room, across the dance floor, through the door, and onto the sidewalk. Then she’s stopped by Lily, who’s at the door asking where Nina’s going. There’s a brief cut to the two of them grabbing a cab.
• In the cab, Nina stares longingly at Lily. Lily walks her hand over to Nina’s thigh and gives her a little tap. Nina sees this and doesn’t resist when Lily moves her hand down the front of Nina’s pants. Nina gets aroused, but she gently removes Lily’s hand after a bit, as if to say, “Not here.”
• In the big mirrored dish that hangs as a wall ornament near the door of Nina’s apartment, we see Nina and Lily as they walk in, giggling and drunk. Nina tries to close the door as quietly as she can, but a disembodied hand reaches in from offscreen and taps her shoulder, alerting her to Erica striding formidably in from the darkened adjacent room. The way the scene is blocked, it’s possible that Lily simply sails into the apartment without Erica seeing her, but the evidence is pretty overwhelming that Lily’s not really there, starting with this great shot of Nina reflected in one panel of the tripartite mirror while Lily walks out of the reflection and into an unreflected part of the frame. As Erica interrogates Nina, she asks “Where have you been?” Nina casts a conspiratorial glance at Lily before answering, “To the moon and back.” It’s a cheesy line, but it’s something that Nina would think of, and the shot of Lily silently mouthing the words along with her heightens the impression that she’s the devil sitting on Nina’s shoulder, or the puppeteer pulling Nina’s strings. (Choose whichever metaphor you like.) Erica asks Nina what she’s been doing. “You wouldn’t know their names,” is the response, followed by “There was Tom and there was Jerry, and I fucked them both.” Natalie Portman makes this great little “uh-oh” face after the line, like she’s a 10-year-old using a dirty word. The word has the desired effect, as Erica screams “Shut your mouth!” and places her hand over Nina’s mouth. Nina takes Lily’s hand and runs off to her bedroom. Erica follows her, but Nina places the stick of wood behind the door so her mom can’t get in. When Erica asks, “What’s this?” from the other side, Nina yells back “It’s called privacy! I’m not 12 any more!” Erica says, “You’re not my Nina right now!” Nina slams the door shut the few inches that it’s open, and Erica leaves. Then Nina looks back at Lily, and the light behind her, which casts her eyes into deep shadow, really makes her look like this succubus.
• Aaaaand we’re here at the movie’s most famous scene. Let’s not kid ourselves; this is the reason why the movie was a box-office hit. (If you want a laugh, you can note that this relatively low-budget Fox Searchlight Pictures movie made more money than any of the big-ticket Hollywood entertainments put out by parent company 20th-Century Fox in 2010.) The audience didn’t turn out in those numbers because of the movie’s psychological insights, or because of the way it captured the world of ballet, or even because it worked as a horror flick.
Straight guys A lot of people wanted to see Natalie Portman get it on with a girl. They weren’t disappointed, either, because this scene is all kinds of hot. Portman starred in a subsequent movie called No Strings Attached, in which she’s supposed to be in a purely sexual relationship, but that movie never had anything like the erotic charge in this scene. There’s a brief shot of Lily reflected in the bedroom mirror before Nina seizes her, and the two of them start kissing ravenously and stripping off each other’s clothes. One of my pet peeves about sex scenes in movies is that the women don’t remove their bras — it’s usually because the actresses don’t want to be topless, but what woman keeps her bra on during sex in real life? Here, though, it’s credible because you believe Lily and Nina are so hot for each other that they can’t even wait to get fully undressed before they do it. As they fall on the bed, Lily gets Nina on her back, removes her panties, and starts kissing her way down Nina’s body. The music, building up to a climax, briefly interrupts to give out a musical “Uh-oh” as Nina looks down and sees her own face between her legs. That’d probably be a turn-on for some, but Nina freaks out. But then she’s Lily again, and she gives Nina a reassuring kiss before resuming going down on her. Nina looks down again and sees that the lily tattoos on Lily’s back have morphed into swan wings that are now flexing. She closes her eyes, and as she writhes in ecstasy (small “e”), stippling becomes visible on patches of her skin. You can be forgiven for not noticing that, but it’ll be much more prominent later. Nina screams in orgasm, and Lily stands up menacingly (again looking like something not human) and says “sweet girl.” How would she know that Nina’s called that? When Nina looks again, she sees her double again, and the double slams a pillow over her face as if to suffocate her.
• The next morning, Nina slowly rouses herself from her bed, a low-frequency rumble on the soundtrack going with Natalie Portman’s pained, squinting expression to let us know that Nina is really hung over. She then looks at her clock and sees that it’s after 11:30, and she immediately starts throwing clothes on. She goes to remove the piece of wood from the door, only to find that it’s already moved, and Lily is gone. This is the only evidence I can find to support the theory that Lily was actually there, had sex with Nina, slipped out, and denied it later just to mess with Nina’s head. It’s awfully slim evidence, though. Here’s where I should link to the YouTube mash-up of Black Swan with Paul Verhoeven’s legendarily bad 1997 flick Showgirls, but unfortunately it’s been taken down. The two movies are driven by similarly trashy impulses, down to the angry, hate-filled lesbian sex, but only one of them has the craftsmanship that inspires me to write more than 10,000 words about it (not to mention the ballet setting that gives it a patina of respectability). Nina walks out into the hall, sees Erica sitting stonily in the living room, and asks, “Why didn’t you wake me up?” With no answer forthcoming, Nina says she’s moving out.
• Nina arrives at the rehearsal hall to hear her music, and as she reaches the wings of the stage, she sees Lily dancing the Swan Queen opposite David. Nina’s shocked, and so am I. Lily goes out drinking, clubbing, rolling, and having sex with some guy the night before, and she’s good to dance now? What’s this girl made of? Nina goes up to Thomas with some profuse apologies, but he simply tells her to get warmed up. Later, Nina is warming up in the wings while Lily finishes another sequence with David. The music ends, the other dancers applaud, and Thomas pronounces it very good before calling for a break.
• A glistening Lily walks over to Nina in the wings and explains that she only did the dancing so that Thomas could check the spacing. Nina interrogates her about the night before, leading up to “And you just took off in the morning.” Lily is confused, and says she spent last night with Tom. Now it’s Nina’s turn to be confused. She just says, “We…,” and she’s unable to complete the thought. There’s a great use of ambient sound in the background, as carpenters hammer something backstage, the sound of a hammer blow dropping in subtly just at the moment that Nina starts to doubt whether last night actually happened. Lily realizes what’s being implied here, and isn’t lost for words. “Did you have some sort of lezzie wet dream about me?” She can’t help teasing Nina about this, and Nina walks off, telling Lily to shut up. Undeterred, Lily asks “Was I good?” Fantastic, judging by what we saw.
• Nina now works out with the orchestra, dancing the same part of the ballet that Lily was taking part in earlier. She sees Thomas and Lily seeming to exchange glances with each other, and a new determination spreads over Nina’s face as she goes through her steps.