January 20, 2011

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Swan Lake, a timeless ballet written between 1875-76 by the perpetually sad Russian composer Tchaikovsky, has since been rehashed and retold in a variety of medium by a myriad of artists. Black Swan is its newest incarnation, directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream (2000)). The original ballet tells the story of Prince Siegfried, who, angry that he must choose a wife he knows he will not love, falls in love with a beautiful Swan maiden named Princess Odette. This maiden is white swan by day and woman by night, thanks to a spell cast by an evil magician. The spell can only be broken if the prince swears his love to her. During the ball where the prince is to announce his wife, he confuses Odette for an identical woman dressed in black named Odile, sent by the magician as a ploy to prevent the prince from breaking the spell, and accidentally swears his love to her. He realizes his mistake only too late. To escape the spell, Siegfried and Odette commit suicide. A tragedy, no doubt, that in Black Swan becomes a harrowing reflection on dueling inner selves.Black Swan enacts the ballet both literally in the theater, and through the protagonist’s personal conflict. First, the movie itself loosely resembles the ballet — its plot follows the travails of New York City ballet dancer Nina during her company’s performance of Swan Lake. A hard working, introverted and emotionally strained dancer in her company, Nina begs company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) to cast her as the Swan Queen, the lead role. In Swan Lake, one dancer alone plays both the white swan, representing innocence, and the black swan, representing romantic impurity. While Nina possesses the fragility of the white swan, in the eyes of Leroy, she lacks the allure and dash of the black swan. To compound the anxiety she faces in unearthing the black swan inside, she is also insanely jealous of her fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), whose tattoo of black wings on her back and cool, sugary confidence make her the more compelling dancer for the role. Here Aronofsky begins the invasive search for self, the concealed darker side of Nina that we are not sure even exists. Nina expresses cunning throughout the movie; she takes the role by force, using Leroy’s sexual advances on her to leverage her position and seems to do anything to hold on to it. This means alienating herself from other dancers and consistently turning Lily’s attempts at friendship away. Yet even by the end her transformation into the black swan does not convince; Lily is still the more attractive, more seductive and free alternative. Although becoming a black swan — unleashing inner forces suppressed by Nina’s rigid personality and pedantic style of dance — sounds like a romantic, liberating endeavor, Aronofsky overemphasizes the psychological and fearful aspects of the transformation. He employs scare tactics — hallucinations, lucid dreams, unexpected encounters and interactions with Nina’s alter ego — a device that skews our interpretation of the events, and creates expectations that are not fulfilled. The central conflict of the plot exists only in Nina’s head, allowing Aronofsky to leave plot events ambiguous and questions about character development and interaction unanswered. Maybe this was his intention, and perhaps the ambiguity in the plot creates a complexity essential to other currents in the film. For example, where the plot does not make sense, the themes that Aronofsky develops do. Many scenes portray Nina alone in the bathroom, picking her nails off and clawing at her back each to the point of bleeding, and confronting a devious mirror image that at times resembles her and at others Lily. Her tight sexual boundaries, jealousy of Lily and inexplicable self-dissatisfaction relate to one another and pull at her from different sides. Yet for most of the movie, she cannot demonstrate these inner conflicts on the dance floor. It’s as if she is under the evil magician’s spell metaphorically: a submissive dancer by day constantly restraining perversity and madness except at night; only by some unknown liberating force will Nina escape this spell. Thus while you may leave the theater confused, you will at least leave satisfied that something that you cannot quite describe seemed to make sense. Regarding its themes and correspondence to the original ballet, Black Swan benefits enormously from its visual spectacle. The movie doesn’t necessarily need to be a thriller, but it does need to emphasize the intensity of Nina’s neurosis and her battle to let her guard down on stage. It most successfully captures Nina’s competing forces when she decides to live a bit, goes to a club and takes ecstasy with Lily. In this scene we have a cauldron of ideas swirling and exploding against one another: Nina’s first escape from her strict habits, her drugged desire and admiration for Lily being pounded from all sides by strobe lights and intensified by her subdued consciousness. If no other moment in the movie resonates, this one will. It captures in one scene the strength of the movie: the original ballet story mixed with disturbing psychological elements and surprise, executed to perfection.

Original Author: Joey Anderson