Blogging “Black Swan” (Finale)
• A brief shot of Nina trying and failing to make herself throw up in her bathroom. I don’t want a ballet film to ignore the existence of eating disorders among dancers, but this feels like too much. It’s not just that psychosis and eating disorders seldom go hand in hand. It’s that Nina’s got so much to deal with already, the bulimia on top of that makes her fate seem predetermined. As I said, she fails, and she turn to leave, there’s a rattle on the soundtrack and Nina does a double take at her mirror. What does she see? For once, we don’t know. Too bad, I would’ve liked to know. Strange moment there. She removes the clothes hamper from its position blocking the door, and goes out.
• She lies in bed with the music box we saw earlier playing the Swan Lake theme on her bedside table. After a moment, she dashes the box off the table. Then she gets up and starts collecting all her stuffed animals. She throws them in the garbage chute. Awww, those would have made some little girl really happy (or some little boy). Still, this is Nina refusing to be a little girl herself anymore.
• She’s grimly crushing the toe of her pointe shoes into a little box in the wings that’s filled with sand and ground glass. Ballet — torture in service of beauty. Love it! She’s got her game face on.
• Nina and the other dancers rehearse the finale of Swan Lake with the orchestra. Thomas exhorts from the front of the stage, “The final act! Your final dance! You tasted your dream, touched it, only to have it crushed! Your heart is broken, wounded! Your life force fading! The blood drips! The Black Swan stole your love! There’s only one way to end the pain! You’re not fearful, but filled with acceptance! And you look down at Rothbart, and then at the Prince, and then yes, at the audience! And then you jump!” I transcribe this in full not because it’s well-written (which it’s not) but to point out that everything Thomas says here actually happens at the end of the movie. The look on Natalie Portman’s face as she’s told to look at Rothbart and the prince is absolutely extraordinary. She looks like a saint in a Renaissance painting. She hesitates when Thomas tells her to jump, looking down at the mattress placed at the foot of the raised platform where she’s standing, but Thomas tells her to go ahead. She jumps and lands safely on the mattress. The orchestra stops, there’s some disembodied applause from the other dancers, and Thomas tells everyone to get some water before he gives notes. As he leaves the stage, he looks over at Nina and gives her a thumbs-up sign.
• She’s being fitted for her costumes. A seamstress notes approvingly that she has lost weight, and instructs her to take off her shrug. This shot of Nina/Natalie Portman’s bare shoulders with the bones jutting out scares the crap out of me. If I saw someone looking like that on the street, I’d wonder what was wrong with her. That’s not even supposed to be the scary part of the scene. She’s got two full-length mirrors on either side of her, and when she leans to her right, the reflection of her back is scratching her left shoulder, where the rash is. Then the reflection turns around to face her. Nina turns around herself, trying to see how that happened, but the seamstress turns her back to where she was to take the final measurement. Nina’s still looking in the mirrors for the rogue reflection when she hears Lily’s voice talking to the seamstress, who tells her that Lily needs to be measured for her Swan Queen costumes. Nina asks what’s going on, and Lily breaks the news to her that she’s been made alternate. We can hear a sewing machine start running just at Nina’s stricken reaction as the news hits her. The way the movie uses ambient sound is just brilliant. I can only think of one other filmmaker who uses sound like this — Edgar Wright, who interpolates all sorts of sounds that you’d find in the scene’s environment to enhance the jokes, especially in Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Aronofsky is just as ingenious, but toward very different ends. Nina runs out.
• Her delusions of persecution in full swing, Nina runs after Thomas and catches up to him in the stairway, saying “It can’t be her!” Thomas tries to reason with her as she says Lily is after her and trying to take the role from her. Nina bursts into tears as she says, “Please believe me!” Thomas, who’s probably dealt with this situation before, tells her soothingly that if Nina just gives a great performance, she won’t have to worry about Lily or anyone else. This time he takes both her cheeks in both his hands and tells her to go home and rest. Seeing that she’s calmed down a bit, he leaves. Nina sinks down on the stairs, her head in her hands.
• She isn’t resting. She’s working again with John the rehearsal pianist, running through her steps once more with her game face on. Suddenly the music stops, as John packs up and says in a high-pitched voice, “I’ve got a life!” Ladies and gentlemen, this is probably the only gay character in this entire movie. Dennis Lim slammed Black Swan on Slate as a heterosexual appropriation of camp, and while I don’t have nearly as much invested as he does in the questions of what camp is and whom it belongs to, it does seem odd that a movie set in a ballet company only has one gay character, and him on the very fringes of the action. (Some people count Nina as a gay character, but I don’t.) Nina keeps working without the music, and we get a shot of her rotating on pointe, obsessing once again over the detail. Then she notices that her reflection is a quarter-turn late. She goes down onto her flat feet. So does the reflection. She raises her arm. The reflection does nothing. She backs up in fear, and we see her reflection in the mirror behind her. Afraid to turn around, her eyes move right and we see the reflection behind her turn around to face her. Then the lights in the studio go out, just like before.
• This is the start of a hellacious sequence. There are four different points where we think the horror is going to subside and we can catch our breath, only to have it start up again. Nina goes backstage, asking whoever’s back there to turn the lights back on. We see a long shot of Nina standing near the backstage entrance and, Horror Movie Trick No. 5, Rothbart moves in front of the camera, accompanied by a blast on the soundtrack. Nina reaches the entrance on stage right and hears the mocking female laughter again. She crosses the stage and then sees Thomas and Lily tearing each other’s clothes off and kissing. As Nina stares, Lily seems to be staring directly back at her and laughing. Then her view shifts to Thomas, but he has morphed into Rothbart, who glares at Nina. Mortally terrified, she runs across the stage, with the sound of beating wings on the soundtrack.
• She runs into her dressing room, breathing like the last surviving girl in the slasher flick as the slasher comes after her. She gathers up all the things she stole from Beth (lipstick, nail file, perfume, and cigarettes), which are arranged totemically in front of the mirror. She removes her earrings (also taken from Beth) and runs out. We hear the wings beating again as she leaves the theater. She looks back and sees a poster of herself outside the building, where the posters of Beth used to be. The image on that poster was used for this really cool poster for the film, which I like much better than the poster you probably saw at the multiplex, and better even than these innovative Art Deco posters. The camera tracks in front of her as she walks, knowing where she has to go. We hear the sound of sirens which may or may not be real.
• A similar shot of her walking down the hospital corridor, until she reaches the entrance to Beth’s room. Beth is sitting in a wheelchair, stooped over and looking very old indeed. The flowers are gone from the room, by the way, except for one little pot in front of her. Beth seems to be asleep, so Nina quietly places a note on the table beside her and then starts laying out the stolen items. The nail file is last, and she’s just laying this down when (Horror Movie Trick No. 6) Beth’s hand comes in from offscreen and roughly grabs Nina’s. Beth asks what she’s doing here. Barely coherent at this point, Nina tearfully apologizes. “I know how it feels now. She’s trying to replace me. What do I do?” Only now is Beth realizing that Nina stole her stuff. Nina explains, “I was just trying to be perfect, like you.” Beth laughs darkly at herself as she picks up the nail file. “Perfect? I’m not perfect. I’m nothing.” Then she plunges the nail file into her cheek. She stabs herself again and again while screaming, “Nothing!” Horrified anew, Nina tries to wrest the file out of Beth’s grasp, but Beth moves to bite her on the arm. When she raises her head, it’s no longer Beth’s face but Nina’s double’s. Nina runs out while her double continues making stabbing motions to her face and screaming “Nothing!” Nina runs into the elevator, which is conveniently open, and as she pushes a button, she sees blood on her hands and drops the bloody nail file on the floor.
• Nina arrives back at home, and as she locks the door and places her keys back in the dish where she keeps them, she stops in front of the mirrored dish as she hears a sound that could be either a woman laughing or a woman crying (like her mom did earlier). She moves on to the kitchen, where she turns on the light and washes her hands in the sink, presumably to get the blood off. The laughing/crying sound is audible again, and Nina looks off to her right. Drying off, she turns off the kitchen light and walks out of the frame. We hear someone whisper “sweet girl.” Nina comes back and turns the lights back on, and (Horror Movie Trick No. 7) her double is standing in the kitchen, dressed in Beth’s clothes and bleeding from her face. Nina screams and runs to the bathroom, where this time she has no trouble throwing up.
• The laughing/crying sound is louder now from down the hall. Nina calls out, “Mommy?” With the sound even louder, Nina flips on the light in her mother’s room, and the figures in Erica’s paintings and drawings are now shouting at Nina, most of them saying “sweet girl,” but some of them saying “mommy” or “it’s my turn.” (We’ll hear that last one again later.) Nina claps her hands over her ears and screams “Stop!” The paintings scream the word back at her, and she starts tearing them down off the wall. She stops when she sees her double reflected in the mirror behind her. The double advances quickly and dangerously toward Nina, but when Nina turns around she only sees her mother. Hmm, where was Erica before this? Did she just get back to the apartment? Erica wants to know what’s she’s doing.
• Nina quickly walks past her mother, down the hall, and barricades herself in her room with the stick of wood. Just as she does, the rash on her shoulder flares up with a vengeance, and she removes her sweater. As Erica pleads from outside, demanding to know what’s wrong and pushing at the door, Nina screams at her to go away. In the mirror, Nina sees her own eyes suddenly go bloodshot. The skin on her shoulder is stippled, and something pokes at her skin from the inside, like the alien. The bumps are pulsating, and some black hairlike appendages are forcing their way through. With great difficulty and pain, Nina takes hold of one of them and pulls it out. A close-up shows us that it’s a quill, framed by Nina’s frightened, blood-red eyes. Just then Erica succeeds in breaking the piece of wood, forcing her way into the room. Nina screams “Get out!” and struggles with her mother. Erica shouts that Nina’s sick, but Nina’s not hearing anything as she pushes her mother far back enough that Erica’s right hand is holding onto the door jamb. Nina slams the door twice on her mother’s fingers, and Erica screams in pain in the hallway as Nina finally shuts the door. All is quiet for a moment as Nina backs slowly away from the door. Then there’s a snap as her right leg bends backward and locks, just like a swan’s leg. Then her left leg does the same. Nina falls and hits her head on the metal frame of her bed.
• There’s a great shot of the music box dancer, still turning but now missing her torso and her extended leg, thanks to the damage Nina did to it earlier. It’s arguably in better shape than Nina’s head.
• Erica sits in a chair by Nina’s bed, but moves to the bed when Nina finally comes to. Nina notes that there are socks on her hands. Erica put them there, because Nina wouldn’t stop scratching all night. Nina takes them off and asks what time it is, clearly wanting to get to the theater. Erica tells her not to worry, that she called the company and told them Nina wasn’t feeling well. The reaction is immediate. Nina gets out of bed, and after a brief struggle with her mom goes to the door. The knob is missing, and Erica gives the game away by sitting back on the chair, saying “You’re staying here until you feel better.” Nina orders her mom to move. Erica asks, “What happened to my sweet girl?” This is exactly the wrong thing to say. Nina grips Erica’s crushed fingers and shouts, “She’s gone!” The pain knocks Erica to the floor, and Nina retrieves the doorknob from under the seat cushion. Erica pleads, “You can’t handle this!” More forcefully than we’ve seen from her yet, Nina says, “I can’t? I’m the Swan Queen! You’re the one who never left the corps!” She heads for the apartment door, followed by her mother’s despairing cry.
• Nina walks down the hallway at the theater, on her way to the dressing room, and as the camera follows her we see a variety of double takes and stares from the other dancers. We hear Thomas using the “this is your moment” line on Lily when Lily sees Nina and asks in an unnerved voice what she’s doing here. “I was — she was supposed to be sick!” Thomas asks for a moment and follows Nina into her dressing room, closing the door behind him. Nina sits down at her table and calmly starts applying her makeup. Thomas awkwardly tells her that he already asked Lily to step in, but Nina coolly asks him if he’s announced it to the audience. His silence is all the answer she needs. She then pulls a power play, pointing out that after what happened with Beth, he doesn’t need any more bad publicity. He accepts the situation and tells her anviliciously, “The only person standing in your way is you. It’s time to let her go. Lose yourself.” He wouldn’t say that if he knew she’d never get herself back. He leaves.
• With her makeup and costume on, Nina checks her shoulder in the mirror and finds the rash completely gone, though the stippling remains. Someone from the stage crew tells her that the White Swan is on stage in 15 minutes, so she removes her boots. That’s when she sees that the toes on her right foot are sticking together, and it takes some effort to separate them. The left foot is worse, as some of her toes are fused together, like the webbing on a swan’s foot. With no time to deal with this, she puts on her pointe shoes.
• She makes her way to the wing on stage left, where she sees David dancing. She looks through a peephole in the curtain to see a packed house. A stage crew member tells her she needs to be upstage to make her entrance. She gets there just in time to do so. As she and David act out the White Swan’s first meeting with the Prince, we see a lot of red light and dry ice fog and a large silhouette of the Moon in the background. I know Thomas said his idea was to do a stripped-down version of Swan Lake, but there’s stripped-down and then there’s crappy. Check out this perspicacious Vanity Fair piece by James Wolcott, a pop-culture writer who also happens to be a balletomane. He points out that unlike his counterpart in The Red Shoes, Thomas Leroy isn’t a great artist but a hack, looking for anything that’ll pull audiences in in an age when ballet struggles with all the other forms of entertainment for attention. The performance continues.
• We skip forward to Act II, as David and Nina finish the love duet and exit stage left, with the four ballerinas doing the Dance of the Little Swans passing by her as they make their entrance. There’s the sound of laughter again as they pass by. Nina watches the girls start the pas de quatre and sees Thomas on the other side of the stage, trying to gauge his reaction. He makes a face like “good so far,” and she relaxes. That’s when David materializes on the other side of the stage as well to embrace a laughing Lily, who fondles his crotch. There’s this low-frequency dull roar that starts up on the soundtrack as Nina watches this in gathering horror. Then the pas de quatres dancers (accompanied by a quacking sound coming from somewhere) seem to be laughing at her. Nina runs to a spot further down- (and off-) stage, and there’s a very funny gag when Rothbart passes by her again. Now instead of a demon, he’s just a guy in a costume who gives her a friendly “Hey,” and the roar on the soundtrack dies down. The little swans come off, one of them saying “That sucked” as they pass by Nina. A stage crew member signals Nina to make her entrance downstage, and David lifts her. As he rotates her, she sees Lily dancing in the corps. The theater starts spinning around her, and she catches a glimpse of her double in the corps as well. She can’t keep her body still, which is why David drops her onto the stage. This event is what starts the final chain of Nina’s hallucinations. it’s the marring of a technically flawless performance, one that prevents Nina from living up to her idea of perfection. There’s an audible gasp from the audience, a shot of Thomas looking sick, a close-up of Nina’s mortified face, and a POV shot of the glaring white spotlight. David picks her up and whispers “What the fuck?” in her ear. They perform the rest of the act, which ends with Nina exiting with her back to the audience. Just as well that they can’t see her weeping. While the curtain goes down, the audience murmurs among themselves, while the other dancers try to console Nina and see if she’s all right. As soon as the curtain is closed, Thomas demands an explanation from David. Nina throws poor David under the bus: “It wasn’t my fault! He dropped me!” It’s not clear if Thomas hears her, though, as he storms off swearing in both English and French.
• Nina enters her dressing room, distraught, only to find Lily sitting at her mirror, already in Black Swan makeup. She taunts Nina, “Rough start, huh? Must be pretty humiliating.” Like a good psychotic, Nina doesn’t question how Lily got into her room, she just orders her out. Lily says, “I’m just worried about the next act. I’m not sure you’re up for this,” as Nina begs her to stop. Then Lily says in Natalie Portman’s voice, “How about…” and when she gets up from the chair and turns around, she morphs into Nina’s double and says, “…I dance the Black Swan for you?” Furious, Nina screams “Leave me alone!” and throws the double into the full-length mirror beside the table, which shatters. The double lies motionless on all the broken glass, but then comes Horror Movie Trick No. 8 as she suddenly jerks back to life and wraps her hands around Nina’s throat, saying “It’s my turn!” As she chokes, Nina’s hands reach for one of the glass shards. Suddenly, Nina’s neck lengthens like a swan’s, and it’s the double’s turn to be shocked. Nina grabs a jagged piece of glass and stabs the double. “It’s my turn!” she says savagely. But the double is now Lily again, and she coughs up blood, then falls back on the floor, dead. This sends Nina into a state of full oh-my-god-I’m-a-murderer panic. She’s paralyzed with fear before she’s jarred into action by the stage crew guy knocking on her door and saying that she’s on in five. She picks up Lily’s body by the ankles and drags her into the bathroom within the dressing room. (This scene always gets a laugh, because it doesn’t look real. Lily’s body moves across the floor so easily that it’s as if Nina were dragging a mannequin. Even the fact that Mila Kunis was down to about 95 pounds during the filming doesn’t account for this. Still, the unreality is appropriate, since this isn’t actually happening.) Nina’s still quaking and breathing raggedly until her eyes go deep red and her breathing slows. As the music switches to the fanfare that accompanies the Black Swan’s entrance in Swan Lake, a deadly sense of calm and purpose comes over Nina. Like I said in my great performances review last January, this would be a great performance even without the dancing, and this scene is one reason why. There was a weird meme going around during awards season that Portman wasn’t really acting here, that the character was too close to who she really is offscreen. This scene, with Portman’s rapid-fire switches between all these different mental states, is just amazing work from her.
• So is this. Nina makes her entrance on Rothbart’s arm as the Black Swan, her eyes still an unreal shade of red and glinting with demented glee. Is it me or do Natalie Portman’s arms look much more sinewy here than elsewhere in the movie? Subtle whooshing effects on the soundtrack accompany her leaps and the movements of her arms. Nina is seductive and raw, and when she makes her exit stage right accompanied by David, there’s a spontaneous cry of applause from the crowd. David whispers, “Wow.” The movie until now has been about making Natalie Portman credible as a professional dancer, but this scene convinces us that she is a ballet star being made before our eyes. I can’t tell you what an achievement that is for an actress who essentially gave up ballet at 13 and had to pick it back up in her late 20s. As Nina skulks offstage waiting to re-enter, she is trapped inside the Black Swan character, and can no more get out than she can jump out of her own skin. She looks far from the little girl we saw earlier in the film, both womanly and inhuman. (And yet, as one reviewer whom I’ve unfortunately forgotten pointed out, these different personae that Portman inhabits in the film all feel like they’re emanating from the same person.) The fishnet veil that Nina’s wearing over her face rhymes with the patches of skin on her arms that are now lighting up, just as they did earlier during the sex scene. She takes the veil off, her skin still pulsating. As the camera focuses on her arms, she notices them sprouting feathers like they did in her bedroom. This time, she smiles and welcomes the transformation.
• She re-enters and does the famous series of 32 fouettés in Odile’s coda, doing a half circle around the camera so that it’s in front of her when she starts but behind her when she finishes. As she spins (each spin accompanied by a whooshing effect on the soundtrack), the feathers sprout further with each turn until her arms have become swan wings. It’s a crazy, magnificent, horrifying, beautiful shot. She finishes the coda, flexing her wings triumphantly, as the crowd erupts. Then the camera switches to a view of her from the house, and her arms are back to normal, though the two silhouettes cast behind her still have the swan wings. I don’t give Thomas nearly enough credit to come up with this piece of stagecraft. It’s an Aronofsky touch, through and through.
• Nina soaks up the applause, finally back to herself. She runs off stage left, where all the other dancers are applauding her as well, and Thomas is telling her to get back out there, but she shuts him up by kissing him, standing on pointe to do so. This isn’t about love or sexual desire, but rather about her taking control of the relationship. She backs off and gives him a look that says, “You don’t own me anymore. I own you.” He looks like he doesn’t mind being owned. Then she goes back on stage for a curtain call, where the fans are throwing roses onto the stage.
• Backstage, Nina passes by a bunch of dancers on the way to her dressing room. A stage crew guy congratulates her as he tells her 15 minutes to the last act. We hear the swan wings and the women’s laughter again, but this time it doesn’t bother her. This does, though: When she arrives at her dressing room, she notices a pool of blood seeping from behind the bathroom’s closed door, so she grabs a pink towel and places it over the blood. She then sits down at her dressing table and starts taking off the makeup.
• She’s back into her White Swan costume and makeup when she hears a knock at the door. She answers it and is thunderstruck to see Lily standing there in her Act IV costume. The first time I saw the film, I never thought that Nina had actually killed Lily. (For one thing, a ballet company would notice a dancer going missing in mid-show.) Still, I wasn’t initially sure how to take the events that followed; I kept asking, “Is this real?” Lily’s there to congratulate Nina: “I know things got a little messed up between us, but — I mean, holy shit! You completely blew me away!” Nina doesn’t answer, which Lily takes as a sign that Nina’s trying to get into the right mental space to perform the last act. She excuses herself with a warm smile. Nina closes the door of her dressing room, looks around, removes the towel and sees no blood underneath it, then opens the door of the bathroom and sees no corpse lying there. She takes a long second, then looks down and sees the spot of blood on her midsection. She reaches down in there and, with some pain, removes the shard of glass from the mirror that she used to stab herself instead of Lily/the double. The meaning of this sinks in, and Nina sits down at her dressing table, crying over her own fate. For someone who previously showed very little sense of self, even this feels like some sort of breakthrough. Finally, though, this terrible serenity spreads over her face, and she starts touching up her makeup. Not fearful, but filled with acceptance.
• She’s dancing the finale of the ballet, and we hear the swan wings beating as she goes through the last steps. Could someone dance like this while bleeding out from a fatal or near-fatal wound? Probably not, but we believe it the same way we believe Violetta singing the final act of La Traviata while dying of tuberculosis. Sorry to bring an opera example into this, but I’m more of an opera guy than a ballet guy. The logic of ballet (and opera) is even further removed real-world logic than the logic of movies is, and that’s what Black Swan is using. Nina’s mental illness destroys her, but her life beforehand is so confining that in her madness she finds a form of freedom. Just before she ascends the raised platform we saw earlier, Natalie Portman gives a superb “goodbye, cruel world” look to the audience and the camera. As she stands on the platform in front of a crappy-looking cardboard cutout of the rising sun, with the blood stain on her costume growing, she glances at Rothbart and at the Prince, just like Thomas said. Then she looks at the audience and finds Erica there, looking anguished as if she knows what she’s witnessing. In the cuts between them, Nina and Erica occupy the same position and amount of space in the frame, and even at such an emotionally charged time, I think to myself, “Wow, Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey really do look alike!” Nina gives that same farewell look to her mom…
• …And then she jumps. The camera follows her in slow motion as she gently falls toward the mattress, landing with the same exhalation sound that we’ve heard on other occasions in this movie. This ending is rather similar to that of Aronofsky’s previous film The Wrestler, and just as we’re free to conclude that Randy “The Ram” Robinson lives after his last flying leap in that movie, so we’re free to conclude that Nina survives this. Still, it seems even more likely in Black Swan that this is Nina’s last hurrah.
• Thomas comes over to her, along with the other dancers, who are all applauding. The tutu that Nina’s wearing has fallen over the wound, so nobody can see that she’s in trouble. Thomas calls Nina “my little princess,” gives her his customary cheek pat, and takes her hand to go take her bow. That’s when Lily gasps in horror, and the blood stain becomes visible to everyone. Thomas orders some of the other dancers to call for help. He asks Nina, “What did you do?” She says, “I felt it. Perfect.” And then she looks straight at us and says, “I was perfect.” The lights up above glare white, growing brighter until the movie’s final shot of Nina’s face fades to white. The film ends with a burst of applause from the crowd, chanting Nina’s name. It’s ballsy of a movie to end this way, by begging for an ovation. I feel like joining in, though.