Black Swan – A Study of Argento Duality

by ryankl

Black Swan is one of those films that just hollows you out and fills you with something else. I couldn’t tell you what that something is because I refuse to analyse it, and it’s probably different for each person. But to summate, the movie is sublime genius on display. It’s a drama, a psychological horror, an adaptation of ballet, and a movie that will leave you thinking for hours.

The basic tale is one of Nina, a ballet dancer coveting the lead role in Swan Lake. As she gets the role, her world begins to crumble. That’s about it. One aspect of this film I loved was that it isn’t mainly concerned with narrative, it’s about theme and structure. This is the type of movie tomes could be written about. I dig that. Especially because it has meaning and yet is still immensely watchable.

We come into the story almost blind with little back story to give what follows any context. This feels purposeful and gives the events, which become more and more disturbing, an ethereal quality. You never know if what you see is actually happening or not. This is the first case of duality seen on the screen, we have to discern what we feel is fact and what is fiction. Lies and the truth are not so easily navigated as you can’t trust their presentation. Nothing is what it seems so that gives everything the possibility to be exactly what it seems. You take away from each scene what you want to believe.

Darren Aronofsky clearly knows the works of Dario Argento because he channels them so well. Sexuality is just as horrifying and manipulative as horror. Scenes of seduction can be equally as harrowing as any scene of violent interaction. You might draw conclusions between lust, love, and hate in a triangle of human emotion. Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, simply does not know how to express herself in an intimate way. She is repressed and it may be because of her mother, played with stone cold emotion and face by Barbara Hershey, or it could be something else from her past, which we do not know about. We know Nina used to scratch herself but we do not know in what context or when or for how long. It is left open to interpretation. We know it must have been bad because her mother comments on it and inspects Nina’s back when she shows marks on her shoulder blade.

It is interesting to note that Nina’s father is neither seen nor mentioned. He is out of the picture and that leaves the home front with one crucial dual axis, mother and daughter. What was, what is, and what will invariably be. It’s a scary mirror of age and intent that shows each character for who they truly are. One wants to be the other but both end up really hating the other, and themselves.

The comparisons between the actual ballet, Swan Lake, and the narrative of this movie are well meted out. You can see this movie as possibly the greatest adaptation of a ballet story to the screen ever. This comparison is obvious but still something to completely marvel at. Aronofsky manages to relay the narrative of this play to the screen with a chilling surreality to the events. He also still films ballet dancers and makes it all mesmerising and riveting.

Nina is so clearly the white swan, pure and elegant, but unable to do the fun things black swans can. She is repressed, disconnected, hidden. And the interesting thing is that she cannot act like a black swan. She does not have that sort of action within her. There is no fooling as the black swan, yet they can easily act as white swans.

Lily is the black swan of the tale, and played with gleeful abandon and darker eyes by Mila Kunis. She can pretend as the white swan for others but her black swan ways show through. She lures Nina into temptation, drugs her drink, shows her another world and life. Something that clearly affects Nina as she then engages in a steamy late night hook up with Lily. Or at least thinks she does. It’s uncertain yet neither confirmed or dispelled completely. The act of sexuality, graphically shown, isn’t important so much as Nina’s lust for it is. She is being changed inside, she is becoming the black swan. There will be no more need to act the part if she is it.

Aronofsky makes many smart choices in this film and making so much seem real is one of them. His handheld camera makes for a film that feels intimate, so when Nina’s legs break into the angles and shapes of a swan’s it all feels too real. As her scratches open up for Cronenbergian infiltration, it’s all starkly shown on the screen. There isn’t any true horror in this flick (not by horror film standards) but make no mistake that this film is indeed horrifying. You need to let go and allow the film to grip you, own you, and do what it will in front of you. Do not look away.

The transition of Nina from simple and innocent to complicated and dense is shown literally and through metaphorical visuals. Which is which is a concept up for grabs. I like not really weighing myself down with what matters, or what might be ultimately important, but rather concentrating on what is just stunning to observe. Real or not, we know what it means and Aronofsky makes everything mean something.

For Nina to become successful in her portrayal she needs to commit. She cannot fake her way through so by showing her transformation as something literal, and visceral, you get the feeling there is commitment involved. Nina ends the movie as a completely different person from where she started. This becomes true of all great artistic pursuits, you must commit yourself entirely. It’s sad to watch Nina fight with herself but her dedication is the victor in the end. She will do whatever it takes.

The final lesson of the film is that the largest barrier for anybody in any pursuit they chase will invariably be themselves. Others may hinder or hurt but the final self-killing act can only come from within. It’s a smart concept and one that plays well to this tale. Nina constantly projects her fears and anxieties as others out to chop down her dreams but it is only ever herself acting as a deterrent. The more people you know, the more you know this rule to be universal. Everyone has moments where they hold themselves back. It so rarely occurs as lesbian trysts and gloriously glowing black swan feathers, but it is the reason why so many fail. They fail on the inside first. So, as the dual nature of life goes, people also first succeed on the inside.

As Nina becomes the black swan, the transformation kills the white swan. That’s generally the nature of their relationship, they rarely coexists and the black swan laughs as they murder. Though it’s not really murder, just forced suicide. White swans are undermined and confused and manipulated until they do the deed themselves. The end of this film shows that to be true, just as it is in the actual ballet performance.

In nearly every scene, there is a mirror present. Duality within the world can be seen, from many angles, and it can be present but not all will see it. The world constantly evolves to contain the dual sides of everything and it’s such a norm that no one questions it anymore. Out with the old, in with the new/the queen is dead so long live the queen. Adages old and true and taken for granted. One of the most intriguing dual roles in life is that of knowledge, inferred and implied. They so often do not align and yet can become so potent in their effects. Which brings another dual role, cause and effect.

Black swans can be smart to abuse implied knowledge in the eyes of the inferential white swans. They don’t actually commit the cause but they know the effect they want, via a sordid and twisted path. This can become even more confusing when the black and white swans reside within the one person. Can they coexist? Do people transform from one to the other or is it a matter of dabbling in the black ways that kills the white within us?

You can see duality in the screen when parts of this are confusing and uncomfortbale and through it all this might be one of the sexiest movies ever made. There’s true emotional gristle and lust on the screen and it’s not set through a Hollywood filter. This is pure, and so not what you expect, but it’s real.

Natalie Portman really is committed to this role. She doesn’t play this as a possibly sci-fi escapist role, no, this is a terrible story of a descent into oneself. A portrait of a mind determined to win when every fibre knows it will lose. Eventually. She is the perfect white swan and yet hides the black swan so secretly within her eyes and her motions. When the black swan does come out there is a considerable change in atmosphere and tone of her performance.

Mila Kunis plays the bystander, externalised black swan, to perfection. She looks just that bit sexier than Portman, acts just a touch more in tune with her own powers. As a duo, Portman and Kunis are completely in synch to show a duo out of synch.

This movie shows every frame as if it just came from deep frozen storage. There is little fan fare, even in the poetic ballet moments. This is simply presented, a pledge, and the turn happens as you go along but the prestige is all inside your own mind (to borrow from another, equally great, movie). Aronofsky makes this look like a forgotten Argento movie, a Polanski experiment, a video nasty before people knew they were making video nasties and played up to the role. Yet it doesn’t feel like homage at all, it feels like Aronofsky learnt from the best and then became the master.

To become great you must first kill your father, then your master, then your god. Aronofsky does this of all the psychological movie masters and rises triumphant in this story that transcends the screen and will play in your mind for a long time after the white light brings the credits. Portman’s Nina follows a very similar path to her success.

It is quite telling, though, that Nina might envision plenty of violence but the only person she truly hurts is herself. Though she does harm her mother, the only person who loves her. You can see that anyone’s self-destructive behaviour will only hurt themselves and the ones who love them, a sad but true fact.

The musical score accentuates every scene as it rips from Swan Lake, but plays certain tracks backwards or with distortion. This movie takes a classic and messes with it, in so many aspects, to make something greater than the source. It infuses this tale with more of a stark 70s vibe as if it were made for a handful of dollars in a drug fugue by a bunch of people determined not to work within the system.

Black Swan is a truly haunting adaptation. This is gripping cinema at its most stripped down. There aren’t massive action sequences or reams of expositional dialogue that are easy to follow. Instead, there is the tale and we who watch it. What happens between these two entities is kind of on us. And I like that, a smart movie should only aim for a smart audience. Easily one of the best, greatest, most ambitious, and purely brilliant films I have seen for a while. If you have not seen this movie then you don’t yet understand what cinema really can be.