Black Swan–A Review with Due Consideration of the Concept of the Dark Night of the Soul
Although I am sure they account for millions of ticket sales among the immature male audience members of the world, and likely caused jaws to drop among the older set as well as fake gasps of awe from women of my generation, I am not at all phased by the sexual themes that were in fact necessary for the development of the plot. (BTW: this film probably won’t screen in Doha.)
Some may consider the sexual references gratuitous and designed for ticket sales; paradoxically the film would not cover the real life our intelligence demands without them: it’s high time that these ideas were eliminated from the realm of dark taboo and lifted, at times, from their underground lairs where they’ve been driven in the name of social standards (I am sure all involved in the making of the film would concur). Sexuality is fundamental to the human being and is at once one’s origins. Most of us are lucky to be born from passion and its expression.
The sensations are an integral part of the protagonists journey and the way they are portrayed in the film exclusively highlights a human being desperately searching for a way to reclaim her feelings and human nature despite herself. Some would call her methods and fantasies perverse, I would call them a stages in the development of a stunted, yet brave, human being–one description involves infinite shame and guilt, the other self discovery.
Finally, to deny these as a part of life is to contribute to the perpetuation of saintly perfectionist ideals and the related frozen, immature state of the human being. The protagonist’s mother represents the mastermind behind a life of contrived perfection–like a wizard of oz, she controls her daughter’s life in ways she never could her own. She is the essence of insecurity, seeking it through control of things outside herself. The protagonist’s eating disorder is simply a continuation of this expression within the confines of her own private, and ‘beshackled,’ world–control and self denial to achieve a fabricated sense of security due to an extreme lack of that within the self. Again, to see her experiment with sensation, masturbation, frosting on the tip of her mother’s outstretched finger, lesbian interactions–whether real or fantastic–should not be shocking to any woman who is mature and at once totally honest with herself.
In this respect, I hold this movie up and celebrate it as a challenge to those who haven’t yet had the chance to explore the ‘Dark Night of the[ir own] Soul’–as a journey to the part of the self that constatly longs for attention and acceptance and is more often shunned due to its ‘socially inappropriate’ nature. What we must come to terms with is that it will get attention whether we accept it or not, life will make sure of it, and only when it is accepted will it integrate and relax into part of our balanced, beloved whole self.
When I heard that Swan Lake was the premise for this film, I immediately considered watching it a daunting concept. The story is one of such tragedy–I mean, suicide is so heavy. And it was quite demanding to watch, really, yet it was a highly worthwhile. As a piece of art, it encouraged disillusionment about some ideas I took for granted as standards–something that excellent art of any medium does for me. This is all not to mention that it was a chance to see acting, directing and editing at its finest.
I will get to the criticism later and that would be of the writing–I think this is the only film that I’ve ever seen where the writing in some places was so poor yet the scene was saved by other elements and thus the movie survived as a piece of worthwhile art.
The film is about Nina Sayers (by Natalie Portman), an over-achieving ballerina who lives with her mother, Erica Sayers (by Barbara Hershey) on the upper-west side. She–as established through scenes of her excitement over a half pink grapefruit and and egg and her matter-of-fact visits to the toilet to curtsy and vomit–takes great pains to maintain a feather weight and perfect every move of every performance.
But when the role of the Swan Queen moves into her sights, her choreographer, Thomas Leroy (by Vincent Cassel), insists that she has the talent but not the character–that she has perfected everything but is not really anyone underneath the mechanical moves.
Thomas is at once sleezy and brutally honest and through the film I can’t decide whether I like him or detest him more. He abuses his power with dancers–pimping their sexuality out to his appetite and whim just because he can–and yet he is tapping in to an essential, sensual part of Nina’s character when he scolds her … right or wrong, he always has a true point:
“You need to let go!” “You are too mechanical.” “You need to stop being so weak.” “Do you enjoy sex? It’s important to know this. Go home and touch yourself.”
I couldn’t help but agree with him though–in a very maladjusted and abusive way, he is trying to get her to look at herself. She has no father and she seems to be sucking his harsh, direct tendencies like a vacuum.
We want to cry for her yet as the film moves on, we are urged to consider both sides. We begin to admit that Nina is a woman trapped inside of her mind, inside of the ideals of perfection, of the “good girl.” The movie develops a perfect parallel of how she became this way. In the beginning we may consider her mother a grounded, supportive “everything will be alright in the morning, it always is” figure in her life, yet we are gradually confronted with the fact that she has done much (symbolized in a music box that is repeatedly noted throughout the film) to preserve he daughter as a pre-pubescent little girl, to shelter her from life and keep her locked in a fantasy land of light and dark, perfection and imperfection. A shallow existence locked in the mind, hovering over the soul, the true essence of an individual, comprising light and dark and everything in between.
Within this womb of a world, Nina measures herself by strict definitions of how she ‘should’ be–standards that have nothing to do with the real world and the real people around her. The only person she relates to until the call to darkness, in fact, is Beth Macintyre (by Winona Ryder), a ballerina who achieves perfection in Thomas’ mind yet is tossed aside as old right as Nina takes over as apple of his eye. Nina in fact takes a few of Beth’s items from her makeup stand and clings to them like one would religious artifacts–in efforts to worship someone who has achieved the perfection her mother hadn’t and was pushing her to work toward.
But there is something different about Nina, and we are given a clue early on that she does have a connection to her soul born from a strength not of her mother (perhaps from the genes of her audacious father–a choreographer only briefly suggested in the film to have been much like Thomas and who impregnated Erica and left her to fall off the top of her career to raise Nina). When Thomas moves in to force a wet kiss, Nina bites him–we see that despite her position, her soul is wild and raging beneath, she is keen to his antics as much as her father would be, and there is someone real in there waiting to get the hell out and call bullshit what it is, to be born. After that bite, incidentally, he gives her the part of the Swan Queen.
As she prepares to perform both roles–of the light and dark swan–she experiences hallucinations and fantasies entailing self mutilation. The directing and editing help bring these home in that we are never quite sure what is real and imaginary until we wake up with her, into what really happened. We are dizzy, nauseous, embarrassed right along with her as her skin breaks open and bleeds, even as her legs break underneath her.
Nina is lead further in her pursuit of darkness by the presence of a visiting ballerina, Lily (by Mila Kunis). Lily is from San Francisco and her stereotypically west-coast free spirit and openness about sexuality provides a strong contrast to the austere and closed existence Nina has been locked within. Lily’s frankness and candid demeanor, her sexuality as advertised to both genders, everything about her is welcomed as refreshing after spending time in Nina’s world.
In a critical scene, Nina pulls away from her mother’s lame excuses to keep her in the shell of the apartment and goes out clubbing with Lily. Lily invites her to do drugs. Nina partakes and we are not sure if she was willing or not but really it is her soul that is … it is her soul that breaks those rules of her mind that night.
She becomes paranoid thereafter with regards to Lily, thinking that she wants the role of Swan Queen and is sabotaging her career. Yet, again, we see that Lily, like Thomas, while slightly sick in intentions is contributing to the Nina’s embrace of the darkness within her and in the world, as part of the whole of reality. This paranoia mixes with an attraction to Lily, however. In a sweep of cinematic genius we are taken into the concept of the spiritual mirror.
Nina has touched herself in a previous scene but her fantasy of a sexual encounter with Lily, which we are not aware is fantasy until she mentions it to Lily, indicates that huge parts of Lily’s personality mirror her own. As is always the case in real life, the person who provokes the strongest emotions and reactions in us represents a dormant, ignored or underdeveloped part of our own person. Lily’s sexuality, independence, lifeblood is within Nina and alive–yet Nina is so sheltered, so new to concepts that are within her that when someone else mirrors them, she can’t find the line between herself and the other.
This blurry line continues through the remainder of the film until a pivotal scene involving blood under a doorway and a towel, at which point Nina is completely herself and has completed the embrace of her entire, natural existence, which was formerly in part mirrored by Lily but suddenly emerges as an integral part of her (broken mirror in her dressing room reinforces this just before she goes out to give the performance we wondered if we’d ever see–and were stunned that Portman pulled off with such emotional precision–we are seduced by her for about thirty seconds and she is shamelessly dark and there is SO much grace in it!).
Again, it’s very important that people be comfortable with sexuality to grasp the full message of this film. The filmmakers put forward a very important challenge to society. What is so bad about acknowledging your needs, your natural desires, your own nature–for food, sex, expression. What is wrong with it? Because if it is not acknowledged, it is perversely stuffed or indulged in–one or the other. The overly-controlled ballerina is a clear archetype of buried desire and how it twists the soul. The question begs here: what is dark about natural desire, natural impulse, other than the fact that it’s not socially acceptable and thus in the shadows–even the shadows of one’s own mind?
Keeping nature in the shadows is dangerous, if not a needlessly arduous pursuit of the human mind. Yet there is a widespread compulsion among us to do just that. It can be because of smothering mothers just as much as mothers who left too abruptly to go out into the workforce or simply abandon the child in the name of finding their own life because motherhood wasn’t for them. Because either way, the child is left feeling that they must earn love, through constant reward and punishment or through never quite getting the love that was lost in the first place, respectively.
This compulsion toward what is perfect, toward external approval, keeps our natures in the shadows. Through entering the Dark Night of the Soul, through exploring desire, activities that were not traditionally part of one’s life and were not necessarily approved of, a person reclaims essential components of their nature. It’s a rough road–it’s dark. Nobody, while in that state, knows why the hell they are there. But when they emerge, they are that much more whole, connected to something deep inside themselves that provides security–the knowledge of their own presence, reality, being, with all of its feelings, tendencies, desires, no matter what is happening around them.
Experiencing life to the fullest, for many of us, involves this passage. Some will survive, some will not. In the film, we are not quite sure if she does–but her rigid ideals, most certainly die. And that semi-final performance, with the black feathers taking over her body, is one of the most triumphant I’ve ever seen!
Critique: The lines, especially those of Thomas, are so contrived at points it’s painful. Knowing his company and what needs to be explained, he never would spell out the premise of Swan Lake at the beginning unless his lines were doubling to inform a clueless audience–I guess a big-budget film needs to pay its bills and make sure even a five year old can understand it so he’ll tell his friends. Sorry that was snotty. Okay so the other thing I noticed is that, and I don’t know how dancers will take this but I suspect they would agree, the ballerinas in this film were not true to form in their social approach. There was something a little too loose about all of them. While they needed to be this way for the film, and I love the message that the film brings across, I think that their conversations seemed contrived, overly-explicit for the context they already shared. Yet again, this is big-budget, this is American Cinema and let’s throw the details out to make a point. Considering the benefits stated above, I can’t care so much that it wasn’t subtle in its script at all … when many times, it would have done very well to be so.