Today I watched Black Swan with a friend, and I was absolutely blown away. It left me in cold sweat, gasping at the end. I couldn't stop thinking about it, yet I couldn't bring myself to find the words to talk about it. Barring perhaps Toy Story 3, Black Swan is the best movie I've seen this year.
Now, if you've seen the movie already (or just don't care for spoilers), feel free to click below the cut to read my thoughts. If not, go see it the next chance you get. I highly recommend it.
If I had to pick one word to describe this movie, it would be visceral. Black Swan isn't a movie you merely watch—it's one that you feel and experience. From the opening scene where Natalie Portman's character, Nina, performs on a darkened stage lit only by a single spotlight, you're focused solely on her body what it's doing. Getting up on her toes, bending back this way and twisting that way—director Darren Aronofsky does an excellent job at getting the audience to really feel what it's like to be a ballerina, with equal parts grace and pain.
It's a very interesting mix, too, because when most people think about ballerinas they think of gracefulness and lightness. But the reality is that ballet is hard work and takes much strength, control, and power in order to move the way that ballerinas do, and this movie does well to highlight that by hyper-focusing on body parts and amplifying the sounds her joints make when they crack and bend to her will.
And that's only the beginning.
Nina's dance group is opening their new season with a reimagined version of Swan Lake. As the movie tells it, the story of Swan Lake is about a girl who is transformed into a white swan, and must find true love in order to break her spell. A prince falls in love with her, but is seduced by the black swan, and the devastated white swan commits suicide by falling off a cliff. In the ballet director's version, he requires only one dancer to play both the White Swan and the Black Swan (together, the Swan Queen), as the first transforms into the second.
Nina is the perfect White Swan: elegant, controlled, and fragile, but struggles with the idea of losing herself to the dance and becoming more passionate in order to play the Black Swan. Regardless, she is chosen as the Swan Queen, and is then subjected to pressure on all sides—from her director, from her peers, from her mother, and most of all, from herself.
Her struggle to become the perfect dancer drives her to madness, and this is exactly what the movie does so well. It plays with her body (in a lot more ways than one) and the imagery of a black swan in eerie and subtle ways to really give the audience a feel for the internal terror she's going through. Whenever she finds herself nervous or on the edge of giving in to the passion she needs, goosebumps appear all over her skin and they look just like the bumps in a bird's skin where feathers grow out of. Sometimes her eyes go red like a swan's, at some points her legs appear to bend the other way like a swan's, but each cut back to reality makes you realize that she really is living her role as the Swan Queen—the once White Swan is transforming into the Black Swan.
She befriends Lily, a new dancer from San Francisco, who aims to relax Nina and show her a good time by taking her out, giving her drinks and drugs, and although it seems like Lily is trying to upstage Nina and steal her part, that's really all in Nina's head. Nina is the White Swan and Lily is the Black Swan: seductive, passionate, everything Nina needs to be in order to be the perfect Swan Queen. Her mind develops this rivalry and hatred toward Lily, who becomes the subject of her dark fantasies filled with lust and bloodlust alike. She becomes more violent, aggressive, and sexual. There's a big theme of bodily abuse in not only how hard she works herself, but how much she later subjects herself to others' sexual advances, not to mention her grotesque transformation into a swan. She also sees her face where Lily's should be, as though she needs to be her to be the Black Swan. It culminates and comes to a head when she apparently murders Lily just before she goes to dance the Black Swan on stage.
And that part was an absolute masterpiece. Once Nina accepted and embraced her darker side, having gotten rid of her rival, she dances her best as the Black Swan. As she dances, goosebumps cover her body, then black feathers slowly sprout from them, her eyes turn blood red and by the end of the act, she's covered in feathers and completes her dance by spreading her big, black wings. But it's still all in her head.
And so was the murder. Lily is alive. Who did Nina stab?
To close the parallel plot lines, Nina pulls a shard of glass from her stomach, and goes to stage to finish the performance once and for all. She does beautifully, gets a standing ovation, falls, and dies.
There were so many things in this movie that just made me feel. I felt her terror, I felt violated when the ballet director felt her up, I felt relieved when she danced the Black Swan, and I always always felt anxious—what was real? What was in her head? Did she really catch the director having sex with Lily? Did she really hurt her mother? Beth? Inception you could figure out, but by the end of Black Swan you're still not quite sure which parts actually happened. But in the reality of the movie, it all happened. It all happened in her head and it was real enough for her, and it was real enough for me.