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February 8, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Black Swan

Yowsers people; Ms. Portman has gone bonkers. Dramatically so. With each fresh rip of skin, ballerina Nina Savers goes from virginal white princess to evil, sexually charged predator.

And yes gentlemen, there is a lesbian sex scene. But hold your horses; it has meaning. [‘Dammit!’ goes the chorus]. Contrary to most other sex scenes in ‘movies’ (that term gets applied loosely nowadays), I don’t think this one is gratuitous. But more on that later.

From the beginning, it’s clear Director Darren Aronofsky intends to keeps one finger on Nina’s pulse at all times, and he forces the viewer to do the same. The entire movie is shot almost nauseatingly close to Nina’s head, following every twitch of her neck muscles as she engages―and completely disengages―from the real world. We flick back and forth between her life at home and at ballet school, both of which simultaneously cocoon her in the security of familiarity, but deprive her in their own twisted ways.

Nina’s mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) spends most of her time aggressively promoting her daughter’s interests. She has turned the disappointment of her own life into a pressurised mess of a relationship with her daughter, characterised primarily by a very creepy over-attentiveness. By infantilising Nina, Erica has turned her daughter into a neurotic, quivering, insecure mess, which doesn’t translate well when Nina auditions for the lead role in the school’s production of Swan Lake.

The director of Swan Lake, the lecherous but expert Thomas Leroy (the ever-kooky Vincent Cassel, King of all things both French and oddly awesome) can quite easily see Nina as the delicate white swan, Princess Odelia. It’s the black swan that Nina can’t nail, a dark temptress and author of her sister’s fate. Leroy pushes her to demonise her dancing, and he’s shown in the past that he’s used to sacrificing life for the sake of art. His influence is bad enough on Nina’s delicate psyche, but things start to get seriously twisted when Nina perceives promiscuous and daring ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis) as a threat to her chances at playing the lead role.

The audience already knows there’s something wrong with Nina’s wiring, but it’s her obsessive drive to express the darkness of the black swan that really gives this film it’s ingenious kick. Portman has to dart between naïve innocent and scheming psycho, seeming to wilt like a flower under criticism one minute and bloody her hands the next. It’s the sneaky slip into being bloody nuts that fascinates me most; the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments of evil, the sudden terror of being out of your depth, the feeling of being constantly watched and constantly judged. Aronofsky forces us to stay close because that’s where the true story of Black Swan is; like Nina, we can’t escape the psychosis.

It’s for this reason the highly publicised sex scene makes its mark as something more than pure titillation. The struggle between black and white swan is never more apparent than in this scene, when the merging of sexual desire, control, violence and rage begin to seep through the divide separating two almost wholly separate personalities.

On reflection, Black Swan also suggests that the two opposing forces of good and evil are always present in each other, however weak or strong either may be. While Nina’s lonely existence in the beginning may suggest innocence, her claustrophobic home life and self-loathing suggest darkness is always present. And her gradual progression towards inhabiting the black swan is tinged with ever-briefer moments of understanding, self-acceptance and emotional release. Her experiences are a tangled web of lies and truth, each given equal weight in Nina’s rationale. It’s a delicious depiction of mental breakdown and a darkly pertinent commentary on the nature of psychosis for those who experience it, regardless of the reason.


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