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Black Swan: better than I remembered it

Lately, I’ve been working my way toward my goal of making real video reviews, like those god-men of the internet. And it had always been my intention to start with Black Swan. I had a lot to say about various subjects, including how the movie borrowed pieces of Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue without understanding what they meant. But I watched the movie again, and it’s better than that. So good, in fact, that I can’t do any of the things I was planning to do. Yes, I came in expecting the movie to be more like Perfect Blue, when really it’s more The Double Life of Veronique or The Red Shoes.

Some of my old complaints are still valid. Aaronofsky’s technique of putting Nina (Natalie Portman) in white and other people in black still feels a tad heavy-handed some of the time — especially when playing her against her mother (Barbara Hershey) or Lily (Mila Kunis) — but it’s just a tad, and it works all in all. He doesn’t do it quite to the extent that I remembered. And his choice to put Thomas, the dance instructor, in a mix of black and white (like a dark sweater with a white shirt, or a tuxedo) is a clever iteration of his color motif. Likewise, Aaronofsky’s use of digital effects goes over the top sometimes, as in the scene where Nina’s legs bend backward like a bird’s. But overall, the effects are more effectively expressionistic than I remembered them being. I had said before that the love scene between Nina and Lily was too prudish, with lots of tight camera work to allow for the use of body doubles and to save Natalie Portman from having to do any nudity; god forbid a sex scene should have nudity (somewhere, somehow, a child might see it, and the world will end!) But looking back, it’s actually not that bad. There is enough coverage to effectively get the scene across without everything looking phony, and some of the shots that isolate Natalie Portman are actually clues to the reveal that happens the next day.

There is one complaint that really doesn’t go away, though. When Nina dances, we tend to see her from the bust up. There are times when this works, like in the nightmare sequence, where her partner can appear out of nowhere and just as quickly vanish into nowhere. But there are times when it’s just an obvious cheat to conceal the fact that Natalie Portman can’t actually dance ballet as well as the story requires. There are only a few times when we get a good look at her dancing full-body at a close enough distance to reliably say it’s her. And I suspect that they either had to do a lot of takes to get it right, or else they did some compositing with a dance double. Oh, one other quick thing; Thomas does say that he knows Nina can play the White Swan but isn’t sure if she can play the Black Swan a few too many times.

A number of my complaints just can’t stand, however. One of the scenes I always picked on was the one where Thomas takes Nina back to his apartment and tries to get her into bed. I always said he was too school boy-ish, and that the scene played as unintentionally funny. The scene is still pretty damn funny, and maybe, just maybe, it went a little bit awry. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be quite so funny. But all in all, it works better than I remembered. I had been prepared to say Thomas was miscast and that they should have picked someone with a more commanding presence, a deeper voice, and a beard — a red-blooded Freudian father figure, like the late Patrick McGoohan in Scanners. I was going to say that a man like that was someone whom Nina could subconsciously feel would give her the love that her absent father never did, and that the scene could have sexual tension with an actor like that. I missed something, though; this man is not a guest director, but the ballet company’s regular director. He’s been working with Nina for four years, he says. Really, he’s already become a father figure to her despite not being worthy of it, and he’s become that because he’s the best Nina could do. He was the only available father figure to latch onto. And just as her mother is a terrible, narcissistic specimen of humanity, her surrogate father is a lecherous pervert who waits for her to become old enough to screw. Such is the tragedy her life. It works.

I had also said that Portman’s conflict with her mother had no climax. I said that the mother just changed toward the end because of careless writing: went from being controlling to merely concerned. I had forgotten a few things about what leads up to the change. First, Nina starts to defy her mother’s rule. Then she starts acting crazy. Then she slams the door on her mother’s hand and possibly breaks her fingers. Her mother may not be such a great person, but she’s still human after all. She gets worried. So then when Nina’s mother tries to tell her that she will be staying in bed on the night of the performance and not going on stage, Nina grabs her mother’s hand, squeezes her already crushed fingers, grabs her things and runs out. That was it. They had their big climactic confrontation, and Nina won. Oh, and by the way, Barbara Hershey is scary; that is all.

I also said that the ending was confused. Nina first confronts her doppelganger in her dressing room. Her doppelganger intermittently transforms into Lily. Nina kills the doppelganger by shoving a shard of broken mirror into its stomach and then believes she has killed Lily. Nina then drags the body into her bathroom and closes the door. Then she dances the Black Swan perfectly. Then Lily congratulates Nina, she realizes that she didn’t kill Lily after all, Nina checks the bathroom and there’s no one there, and then she sees that she has actually stabbed herself. I said that it was a confused mangling of two scenes from Perfect Blue. But again, there was something I missed. It was the earlier discussion about Beth (Winona Ryder) walking out in front of the car and ending up in the hospital. Thomas told Nina about a dark impulse inside Beth that made her brilliant but also made her self-destructive. And then there is the scene, possibly real, possibly imagined, where Beth stabs through her own cheeks with a nail file. So there is a precedent for what Nina does. And so deceiving Nina into believing she has killed Lily and must now hide the body is a kind of seduction by a dark impulse that does not care whether it kills its host. “Give in to your hate. It makes you strong.” It works. Also, with Lily’s various scenes leading up to this — the club, the love scene, the mirror shot (which we’ll get to in a moment,) the various times when Lily transforms into the doppelganger or vice-versa — there seems to be an implication that Nina is assimilating Lily and the doppelganger (and is there a difference?) into herself. And as for breaking the mirror, she destroyed the division between the doppelganger and herself, she put the darker side of her nature into herself, etc.

Now, remember, I never actually thought this was a bad movie. I thought it was just a flawed movie that fell short of greatness. (It may actually attain greatness, in my new appraisal.) And there were always things I thought the movie did well. I thought the movie did a good job of establishing the mother’s motivating dilemma: she was seduced by her director and had to give up dance in order to have his baby, and now she fears her daughter will do the same. The basis for the character is Rumi from Perfect Blue, but there are several well-chosen new dimensions that make the character unique.

And rewatching the movie, something else strikes me. The ballerinas at Nina’s company say that Beth is too old, even “approaching menopause.” But she’s played by Winona Ryder, who still looks quite youthful (in this film, anyway.) If Perfect Blue was an indictment of the pop idol and media industries in Japan, this film is an indictment of the ballet industry over here, with its casting couches and its discarding of older dancers (which is not to say all companies, or even most, are like this.) And if Winona Ryder, aged only 39, is too old, what does that say about Nina’s mother?

There are other things that strike me in rewatching the film.There is a consistent cinematographic device of following behind Nina, framing her from the shoulders up. This technique first appears in the opening nightmare and is repeated several times throughout. Perhaps Nina’s fate has been following her through the whole film: stalking her, waiting for its moment to claim her.

Another thing. I knew already that there was a mirror motif. And what do mirrors do, everybody? They indicate a double nature, or deception: correct. And I remembered that the motif was effective, but I didn’t realize quite how prominent it was. I remembered the shot where two mirrors make Nina seem to divide into herself and Lily. That was one of my favorite shots. And I remembered the shot shortly before of a small mirror with several tiny mirrors forming a border around it. Look at all those mirrors! Something big is gonna go down! There were other things I hadn’t noticed. In the mother’s introductory scene, when we see a flash of her malevolent, controlling nature, we see her in a mirror. In the scene where we establish Thomas, we see his reflection doubled by a pair of mirrors. And in the dance studio, there’s a mirror ball on the floor, just sitting there in the corner, just to tell us that anything we see might be a deception.

So there’s a lot to Black Swan that I just didn’t see the first time around. And it’s really good stuff. I always knew it was a good film. I just doubted that it was a great one. And now? There are still some complaints, which I discussed above. If it’s not a great film, it comes very close.

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