Review: Black Swan

 

A few years ago, putting this opening at around December of 2010, I remember being brought to a theater with some friends to see a new movie the likes of which I had zero prior knowledge.

“It’s called Black Swan,” one of my friends said. “It’s a movie about Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.”

We were in New York City, it was cold, and considering the company with whom I shared the evening, it was not as though I had a choice. Why not, I said, completely unaware of the story premise and what kind of movie we were about to see.

That film was something I would later hear described as “Natalie Portman goes bat shit in a tutu.” While not overly fond of that description, I cannot argue against how apropos it is.

Black Swan is a confusing movie, best understood only at its conclusion, and even then it has left people wondering what they just watched. I remember my sister-in-law calling it a Sexual Psycho-Thriller, and that about sums it up, and if you happen to be familiar with the director’s earlier work (The Wrestler), you’ll draw some parallels. Same director, same music composer, and a similar premise.

What we have in this movie is the story of a young performer’s descent into madness, and when I say descent, hoo-boy does she fall. The protagonist, Nina, seeks to attain the star role in a new rendition of the “done to death” performance of Swan Lake, a story (and orchestral arrangement) with which most of the Western World is quite familiar. Whether or not you know the ballet or Tchaikovsky, I think it’s a safe bet that if you’re reading this you would recognize this.

All I know is that no matter what I say, I will have been type cast forever as liking this movie for no reason other than the lesbian love action that happens about two-thirds in. While the movie would limp on without that particular scene, it does in fact add to the plot, unlike a lot of other meaningless sex scenes in films.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. People usually watch stuff to be entertained, after all. But the reason I linger on that note is because it’s most noticeable in comparison to moments in countless movies where that kind of thing establishes one of two things: The predicable love story culminating into what all animals strive to doOR merely a chance to draw the audience back into the movie by showing some skin.

Again, not saying a steamy scene is in itself a detriment, but it has been done before with little other point in mind. In Black Swan, it actually adds more to the plot than “and so these characters really do love each other.”

In fact, in this movie it kinda does the opposite.

So this movie is confusing to viewers, and that’s mostly why I like it. Much like we all teach people how to treat us, directors teach us how to view their movies. Something like Black Swan teaches that we cannot trust what we see; that what we watched may or may not be truth.

And I love that. It’s so sublime and applicable to real life that I wager most folks find it uncomfortable.

Told from the perspective of Nina, the story in this movie never leaves her perception of things, in a manner I like to refer to as Harry Potter Style. In J.K. Rowling’s famous writings, the point-of-view almost never leaves the eyes of the titular character. This has its benefits, as well as its challenges, and of course there are innumerable other writers who do the exact same thing – I only call it Harry Potter Style because it was around the time when I was reading her books that I came to realize this concept.

They probably teach this in a writing class somewhere. If you know the term, feel free to let me know!

At any rate, it is because we never leave the perspective of Nina that are never shown “true” events – we are only shown things that she sees, that she experiences, and hallucinates about. Whether or not what we see is true is up to us as viewers, because hell, our guess is as good as that of the character.

They touch on the concept of being haunted by a double, as well. Doppelganger if you’re into German folklore. It’s not explored in Black Swan to any great depth, though, as no mention is made of the words ‘double’ or ‘doppelganger’ or anything like that by any of the characters; however there are plenty of mirrors and hauntings/hallucinations that lead Nina – and the audience – down a delightful path of paranoia and fear.

Add in the whole white swan/black swan dichotomy going on in Nina’s head and we’ve got a wild ride.

In short, I totally dug it. You should see this movie, but bear in mind it’s NSFW.

~~~

Today’s track comes from the film itself, the ending credits. I read that while the movie received or was nominated for a variety of awards, the soundtrack was deemed ineligible for Best Musical Score on account of not being wholly original. No surprise there, since much of the music implements portions of Tchaikofsky’s work, and to great effect.

This track is not peaceful, and to most it is probably not particularly calming. It does, however, sum up the movie well. It begins with elegance and grace, reaching a pinnacle of confusion as glass can be heard shattering – no doubt representative of the inescapable symbology of the mirror – then it dies down, like the release of tension about half-way. The remaining half of the track then deepens with elongated cellos, threatening to pull us down as it descends into a place dark, and cruel, and eternal.

That screeching “crowd of birds / strong instruments” sound out at the end really gets the hairs on my arms standing up.

One can try to exemplify insanity through music consisting of confusing sounds or inconsistent melodies. Perhaps instead with lyrics that either spoon feed you the meaning, or leave the meaning open enough to be interpreted however you like. But this piece, to me, sounds like the theme of true madness in fiction, the underlying darkness that many of us successfully fend off every day.

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