Natalie Portman as the Black Swan
As it is half term, we threw caution to the winds and went to the pictures on a Monday night. We normally go on Wednesdays to Kettering because a) we can get a free ticket through Orange Wednesdays and b) parking is free at Kettering. However, I couldn’t face the idea of sitting through any of the films the boys wanted to see, so we agreed that they would watch ‘Big Moma’s Fathers and Sons’ (which they enjoyed enormously) and I would finally go to see ‘Black Swan’ as they were showing at practically the same time at the Leicester Cinema de Lux.
I don’t think I’ve ever come out of a cinema feeling so emotionally exhausted and generally troubled.
Now I must explain what it’s like going to the pictures with me. I take it very personally. When I watch a film, I am with them in every scene; I cry pitifully when I am sad, happy, emotional, empathising or sympathising. I jump out of my skin when I’m startled and I offer audible advice if I think the characters are about to make a terrible mistake. I hide behind my hands to avoid unpleasantness and I have been known to complain out loud if a film doesn’t end as I think it should.
So. First of all, the lead character, Nina (Natalie Portman) is thoroughly unlikeable and is undoubtedly the sort of woman I would never tire of slapping. Her bedroom is pink, full of soft toys and screams of her emotional and sexual stunting. She is constantly on the verge of tears, uptight, unable to express herself, repressed and neurotic. Of course, she is a ballet dancer in search of perfection, and is consequently distastefully thin and obsessive.
However, no-one else seems to like her either. Her mother is a failed ballet dancer who lives vicariously through her daughter and is, herself, a frightening, pantomime witch of a woman. She wants her daughter’s success but hates her for it with the same breath.
The crux of the film is that Nina is chosen to play the Swan Queen in Swan Lake which requires her to play both the White Swan who is sweet and lovely and the Black Swan who is dark, visceral and treacherous. Nina cannot find the Black Swan within herself and the bullying, sexually predatory habits of the company’s director do not help.
She hallucinates all the way through the film and we are left wondering whether this is because she’s psychotic, anorexic or simply stressed out of her brains trying to draw from within herself a character that simply isn’t there. But we never really know what’s real or imagined and she’s treated so manipulatively by everyone round her that even when something potentially nice happens, you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for it to turn nasty. And it frequently does.
The sound engineer on this film should have won many awards. Whenever she pulls a muscle, strains a ligament, splits a toenail or obsessively scratches her back, we are treated to an auditory manifestation of the fragmentation of her body and consequently her mind. It’s like people who see numbers as colours – we are made to hear corruption as sound, and very unpleasant it is too.
Skin is also used as a metaphor for protection, safety and a covering to keep the nastiness inside. Nina scratches her back as others might bite their nails. I was put in mind of Eustace in ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ in which Aslan makes him tear off his dragon skin to reveal the pure, re-born person within. At any moment I expected black feathers to erupt, bleeding from her shoulder blades as she struggled for her inner darkness. But enough about that.
As for the lesbian sex scene (which I know has lured many into the film), we are not allowed to enjoy the potential eroticism of it because, by this time, we know how the film is working and there is the terrible fear that something horrific and disgusting is going to happen. Again, the sound effects lead us down a very uncomfortable path and, when it didn’t end horribly, I felt dirty, as though I was colluding in an abusive pornography of my own invention.
The ending is a terrible, horrific and tragic fragmentation of mind and body and yet… and yet…. it felt like the only humane and satisfactory outcome.
See the film by all means (if you think you’re hard enough), but give yourself time to think about kittens and snowdrops and rainbows for a while before you go to bed.