Black Swan

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out has one of the most haunting endings in cinematic history. The film deals with a sound man (played by John Travolta) who’s looking for the perfect scream for a schlocky horror movie. But when he finds it, it comes at a terrible price. The film ends with Travolta sitting in an editing room, his hands shaking as he says “It’s good” over and over like a mantra. If only he can believe in his words, his tortured soul can be saved.

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan ends in a similar way. The tortured ballerina Nina, played by Natalie Portman, finishes her performance of Swan Lake with a single sentence: “It was perfect.” Those are the last words spoken in the film, and they haunt the audience more than the grotesque imagery of black demons and peeling flesh that precedes it.

The plot of the film is fairly straightforward: after the head ballerina resigns (unwillingly), Nina is given the lead role of the Swan Queen in the company’s upcoming performance of Swan Lake. The only problem is the role is a dual one: the White Swan and the Black Swan. Nina can dance the White Swan effortlessly, but she can’t lose herself in the uncontrolled and chaotic movements of the Black Swan. She can’t embrace the darker side of her personality, or as Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the founder of the ballet company puts it: her sexuality.

There are two opposing forces in the film and Nina is caught in the middle. Throughout her life, her mother (Barbara Hershey) has repressed Nina’s sexuality by treating her as if she is a little girl. Nina’s bedroom is a direct manifestation of this treatment: its bright pink, covered with stuffed animals, and doesn’t have a lock on the door. No wonder it comes as a difficulty when she’s urged by Thomas to embrace her sexuality; she has to have one first.

In the advertising copy for the film, it’s described as a “psycho sexual thriller.” This is exactly what it is. As Nina tries to reconcile the wishes of her mother and the demands of Thomas, she mentally deteriorates. She thinks that her body is falling apart. She’s paranoid that a rival dancer (Mila Kunis) is out to steal the role of the Swan Queen from her (and she may be). She keeps seeing things that aren’t there. Nina has to choose a side: either release her sexuality and play the role of her dreams, or repress it to please her mother, who gave up her career to have Nina. Someone has to be hurt or disappointed, and it’s that dilemma that drives Nina’s mental breakdown.

The tension never lets up. Aronofsky is known for depicting harrowing and unrelenting sequences (just watch the last fifteen minutes of Requiem for a Dream), and in Black Swan he doesn’t pull any punches. There is no comedy and no relief from Nina’s descent into madness. The audience is pulled along with her in increasingly nightmarish sequences that create horror in the mundane (in the screening I was in, a woman shrieked when a character picked up a nail file). You don’t just watch Nina’s journey; you become part of it.

Unlike Travolta in Blow Out, Nina believes her final words of the film, and that makes it all the more haunting. There was never any chance of redemption for her; she was always lost.

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One Response to Black Swan

  1. Pingback: I Saw the Devil « Modest Movie

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