Monday, January 3, 2011

Black Swan

Are you a good swan?  Or a bad swan?


Black Swan is derived from the classic ballet Swan Lake; a soundtrack mysteriously recognizable even if one has never seen the performance.

In the ballet, an evil sorcerer puts a spell on a beautiful princess that makes her a swan by day and woman by night.  Only faithful love can break the spell.  She meets her prince and sensing his swan prisoner is nearing her freedom, the evil sorcerer intervenes. 

He casts a spell on his own daughter, who then seduces the prince, disguised as the princess.  After learning of the temptress and her trickery, the princess commits a graceful, swan-like suicide.

In the movie, a young girl has been dancing in the background of a prestigious ballet company, almost completely unnoticed.  But Nina (Natalie Portman) remains hopeful her time will come. 

After years of strict discipline, bordering on obsession, it's finally her moment to shine.  She will play both the white and the black swans in Swan Lake.

Nina is sweet, submissive and virginal, making the darker character a challenge.  But her desire for the spotlight drives her to act unlike herself. 

As the pressure mounts, and the line between fantasy and reality is blurred, her world starts spinning faster than her pirouettes.

"I had the craziest dream last night" she started, frightened to even remember.

Black Swan is a movie made up of dichotomies.  The most obvious exists in the title; a good and pure white swan rivals the evil, seductive black swan for the love of a prince. 

Nina's own sexuality comes alive as she's pushed to become both swans.  She attempts to win the affections of her womanizing producer, dabbles in self-love, and even has a questionable lesbian encounter. 

Here, the Virgin/Whore complex is personified by one girl, depicting the realities young women struggle with as they navigate love, sex, relationships and reputations.  Nina is inexperienced and totally unprepared, always instructed to avoid compromising situations.

But suddenly, she's making all sorts of compromises.   

Every time she rejects her mother's values and morally strays, her guilt manifests on her body.  Black feathers begin to sprout from her shoulder blades, like a red A, marking her as a tainted woman as she becomes exactly what everyone thought she could never be.

"I just want to be perfect," she confessed, begging for the role of a lifetime.

Nina is a perfectionist-- apparently her mother's doing.  A former dancer, she never reached her full potential once she became pregnant.  Now living vicariously through her daughter, she both guards and resents Nina as an absurdly controlling single mother.

And under her mother's panopticon-like surveillance, Nina practices several hours every day-- but it's not paying off.  Her movement is flawless, but mechanical-- unlike Lily (Mila Kunis) Nina's free-spirited competition.

Nina is told, "the only one standing in your way is yourself," igniting an internal struggle that she will ultimately lose. 

"I'm not hungry," she said, trying to convince herself.

Like any "perfect" woman, and "dedicated" dancer, Nina battles eating disorders.  There are multiple bathroom scenes suggesting she is bulimic.  And her protruding bones suggest her meals are few and far between.

For instance, after learning that she is the lead, the last thing Nina wants is a piece of her mother's celebratory cake that would threaten her waify physique. 

Natalie Portman reportedly lost 20 pounds to play the part of Nina.  In fact, while filming, Portman's visible ribcage worried others on the set, sparking rumors the actress may have taken on some real life anorexia for the role.

"Seduce me," he told her, in a voice that proved he doubted she could.

Of course the problematic protagonist has external struggles as well-- with her mother, frenemy Lily, and the prima ballerina (played by Winona Ryder) that she is replacing.  Much like the black swan stealing the white swan's happiness, Nina feels as though she is being sabatoged by an imposter lurking around every corner.

Her most important nemesis is actually her love interest.  She's attracted to, and frustrated by her producer, who refers to his (many) significant others as "Little Princess."  Apparently, the man controlling the fate of many vulnerable women has a habit of reducing them to his child-like possessions.   

But Nina's also attracted to Lily.  When the two "enjoy each other's company" after a night of New York clubbing, Nina wakes up alone and realizes it was all a dream.  Her desire for a partner of the same sex is then blamed on the black swan within.

Nina is slowly becoming a monster, unable to distinguish what is real from what is not.  Her anxiety drives her to scratch herself until she bleeds, and from her wounds, feathers emerge.  As she dances, she spreads her wings, but the wings are black.  She is a good girl gone bad.

 Her flirtation with darkness is accompanied by crippling paranoia.  Nina witnesses self-mutilation, passionate sex, and even murder-- but her eyes cannot be trusted.  From a first-person perspective, the audience is left to feel as helpless and confused as their hero.

Initially, the producer calls her frigid.  But he is magnetically drawn to her after witnessing her transformation.  Unfortunately, this triumph is short-lived.  Nina experiences the duality she always yearned for in her final moments, but it's too late.

"What happened to my sweet girl," she demanded, already knowing the answer.

Nina finds true freedom in death, as the events in the film parallel the storyline of the ballet.

Is this movie feminist?  Does Natalie Portman give blood, sweat and tears for the tormented character?  Yes.  And yes.

While this cinematic experience doesn't exactly inspire retired ballerinas to dust off their toe shoes and start practicing their plies, it does initiate several familiar discussions within feminism.  Sexuality, body image, and impossible perfection are all issues real women grapple with every day. 

These are their black swans, in the shadows of their existence.

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