February 6, 2011

The secret lives of dancers

“I was always turned on by the idea of reinventing the werewolf movie with a were-swan film, turning Natalie Portman into some sort of creature.”
– Darren Aronofsky interviewed by Nick James, Sight and Sound, February 2011.

“The origins of Nina’s war of identities aren’t clear, and this is the movie’s greatest strength: it doesn’t explain what doesn’t need to be. I don’t want to know if she’s actually schizophrenic or in fact a strange magic being that really does grow feathers. Why does Nina scratch? When did it start? Where is her dad? How old is she? Her relationship with her mother is clearly perverse, but one we can’t exactly finger.”
-- Kartina Richardson, "Black Swan and Bathrooms", Mirror, January 3, 2011.

A man probably wouldn’t have picked up on that which Kartina Richardson discusses so thoroughly in the post noted above, or at least this man didn’t – the importance of bathrooms in Black Swan, especially in relation to Nina’s identity/identities. Bathrooms as the site where important switches happen or selves appear. One of the remarkable things about Black Swan – almost the most remarkable thing – is that a male director (Aronofsky) and three male screenplay writers (Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin) have produced a film that, as Sight and Sound critic Lisa Mullen put it, “speaks to the abiding concerns of all ‘women’s pictures’: bodily imperfection, impossible male expectation and the terror of old age.” Yes, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher got into some of these areas too, but that came from a woman’s story -- a novel by Elfriede Jelinek.
Of course, one – possibly even two – of those concerns were also in Aronofsky’s last picture, The Wrestler. The superficial comparison is that both films are a vehicle for a big, faultless performance from a star playing a performer, one on a comeback and one an ingénue, just as the actors (Mickey Rourke, Natalie Portman) themselves are. There are several levels of identification going on: Mickey Rourke is Robin Ramzinski is Randy “The Ram” Robinson; Natalie Portman is Nina Sayers is Odette and Odile. A difference: the wrestling world seems to be one of casual, easy camaraderie, even between guys who have to pummel each other in the ring, while the ballet world of Black Swan seems viciously competitive (at least according to Nina’s subjectivity, which isn’t exactly reliable). A deeper similarity is that in both stories, a choice is made to sacrifice everything else about life to the greater cause of performance – or art, if you can call wrestling art. In The Wrestler, there is the razor blade moment – Rourke’s fighter slicing his own forehead in the ring for dramatic effect; in Black Swan, starvation, obsessive scratching and other forms of self-harming, which take on a delusional quality (are feathers growing out of my back?). Aronofsky has been working in this field since day one: his first film, Pi (1998), is about a place where psychotic individualism meets paranoid genius.
The were-swan theme Aronofsky refers to in the Sight and Sound interview is only literal for seconds but it’s within the film from start to finish: metamorphosis. We know how Odette’s metamorphosis comes about in Swan Lake, the ballet at the centre of the story – there is a sorcerer with a spell – but not Nina’s metamorphosis. I think Kartina Richardson is right to say that this lack of explanation is actually one of Black Swan’s strengths, especially in an entertainment culture that tends to over explain. We are wrong-footed: Nina looks to be in her twenties but lives like a 12-year-old, infantilised and trapped by mother, with the scenario calling up a range of gothic arrested-development stories from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to Carrie. That said, the film is not quite horror and not quite camp; more an oppressive, phantasmagorical melodrama that blends both (here, props must be given to the great Barbara Hershey as the terrifying/terrified mother). It is oppressive in its almost constant use of hand-held close-ups in underlit rooms – a nocturnal New York of apartment, rehearsal studio and, for light relief, a bar – with a sound design that plays all manner of tricks on us. The Wrestler was ultimately within a realist tradition, which the hand-held style is associated with (the behind-the-shoulder following shots come straight out of the Dardennes) – but in the stranger, riskier, more unpredictable Black Swan, the same style becomes just one more expression of an anxious, unstable, unexplained subjectivity.