“The Ultimate Girl Film!” cries Cosmo. Black Swan “will lift your heart”! Five stars, Pick Me Up! “Love. Shoes. Glory.”
…But that didn’t happen, did it?
A companion piece to The Wrestler, replacing the ballet of tights and the ring with …well, ballet. The female yin snuggling into that film’s sweaty masculine yang. Out of context, its individual components – female jealousy between performers, powerful male romantic lead with a French accent, dancing – suggest a film as narrow as that of its twin. It could have been so easily read as a … sigh … ‘chick flick’. But that just doesn’t seem to have happened.
Instead, the buzz around Black Swan was tense. People had spoken about coming out shaken, not feeling quite right. When I sat down to watch it, finally, I wasn’t being quite sure what I was about to face. That itself is a fist-in-the-air moment of cinematic triumph.
It reminded me that cinema, for me, hasn’t always been quite so safe, so – if I’m being uncharitable – inert an experience as it is now. I used to be, straight-up, a little scared of going to the cinema. We’re not talking about big scary films, here. I mean when I was really young, so largely the family-friendly output of the Disney corporation. It wasn’t the films themselves, it was the unknown, having no idea how I’d feel when I emerged from the dark in two hours’ time. It’s still there, under the surface, and to this day, horror films in cinemas present a boundary to me that, say, an equally scary TV series just doesn’t.
One way in Black Swan is kind of a chick flick, actually, is its relationship with horror. It’s a genre which is often ignored in the female-demographic stereotype, but almost all the horror-hounds I know are girls. Obviously, it’s non-traditional as horror film. Black Swanis undeniably, unashamedly Art. It invites you talk about it in terms of technique, how excellent Natalie Portman’s performance is and just how precisely constructed it all is, and puzzle over motivations and meanings. Honestly, it’s hard not to fall into language which might be termed ‘pretentious’, and I can feel my film-critic voice coming on as I type this. Sorry.
But it does borrows from the horror genre, using some of its cheap schlocky tricks to make you jump, and diving regularly into body horror. But the film as a horror depends upon expectations, both of the mundane and of high-art, to let all that slip in, under your skin … and then pulls.
And so a film which never in a thousand years would announce itself as a horror story leads to everyone talking about how weird and shaken it left them feeling. The Wrestler brought out the weepie in its manliest of settings, tears alongside the sweat and blood. Black Swan finds the horror in a dance movie. But tears? Sweat? This isn’t the film for those, thank-you very much. It’s tight where its older brother was loose; all clean lines, and black and white. The David Bowie to The Wrestler’s Iggy Pop.
The film’s world is constructed from blacks and whites: every location emphasises the two colours, and the camera takes the opportunity to drink it all in. Where monochrome wouldn’t be suitable, or believable, the palette is instead drained of colour, shading everything into grey. It’s not colourless in the way Transformers is, or most post-Gears of War shooters are, but in a way that makes the world feel a little anodyne, stiff, and sexless.
This is the world of the beginning of the film. Natalie Portman’s Nina is living an enforced childhood, innocent and absent of corruption or sexuality. This absence casts a looming shadow bigger and blacker than any film saturated with depravity and evil. It’s not quite real. Nina’s mother never slips into the clichéd controlling stage-mother trailers suggested, but her motivations are unclear and not wholly pleasant.
And it’s from here that the shivers creep in, working their way under your skin. The new colours that seep into the film are attractive, but they’re dangerous. The basic construction of Nina’s life is a tension between being uncomfortable with the way things are and the stakes of an wide-eyed child being corrupted. You’re not sure which way to pull, for Nina to grow up or for her to remain safe in her bubble.
So: a perfect metaphor for growing up then.
And corrupting influences do enter Nina’s life, of course. You know enough of the story by now, by trailers and osmosis, and what you don’t know it’s best to keep that way. But it’s inevitable that Nina will try to grow up, and that colour will seep in (the clubbing scene being a perfect example of both, its flashing reds and greens like throwing paint directly into your eyeballs). Nature might abhor a vacuum, but nowhere near as much as fiction does.
Those sharp edges never collapse. Black Swan remains to its final moment totally precision-crafted, a perfect mirror. That conclusion seems inescapable: mirrors are everywhere in the film, literally, and permeate its idea metaphorically. But a mirror to what? Increasingly, as the film continues and the mirror is smashed up, everything. It is a mirror reflecting Nina’s twin, within the film and its own, The Wrestler, outside of that. The reflection of male and female, that false dichotomy. It reflects Swan Lake, in a way that is entirely obvious once someone points it out. It is a mirror the way performance is a mirror, trying to get your lies close enough to the truth to communicate some grand Truth about the world. And Black Swan‘s particular set of lies are exactly perfectly picked.