You Don’t Own Me: a review of The Black Swan
January 17, 2011 § 8 Comments
Be advised: if you have not yet seen The Black Swan, best not be reading on. There are all sorts of spoilers ahead.
Ah, so either you are reading on because you have seen the movie, or you’re reading on because you actually like the movie spoiled for you. I wish I had had the movie spoiled for me in the ways that follow because…good lord, I’d surely like to get one night’s sleep. Since Friday.
Robert and I saw The Black Swan on Friday night as a date/celebration because I completed 10 pages (1/4 of my first dissertation chapter)! I have been dying to see this film since I first saw the commercials–it combines one of my very first hobbies (ballet) with that psychoanalytic part of me that just loves this kind of thing. We ordered our popcorn, settled into our seats in the square center of the row, and snuggled together (middle arm rest UP, of course). Natalie Portman has really never ceased to impress me in any film I’ve ever watched of hers; Mila Kunis stuns me with her breadth of talent.
The movie opens with dancing…sur les pointes à la barre. I have a fascination with les pointes because it is a shoe I never had the distinction to wear–I quit ballet the year before pointe to do jazz and then the following year to learn violin. Watching the film tugged endlessly at that part of me that wishes she had not quit. And then the mangled feet show up on scene. Complete with a split toenail. While the rest of the theater recoiled at the gruesome reality, I whispered to Robert, “I can’t believe I ever wanted that….”
That’s where I stop relating to Nina, Natalie Portman’s character.
Early on, Nina displays classic signs of dermatillomania, compulsive skin picking; auditory and visual hallucinations; and paranoia. Robert and I are always hesitant to describe an individual as schizophrenic, but girl was displaying some pretty clear characteristics. Nina’s mom showed unflinching devotion to her daughter; sometimes I expected her to venture into the Mommie Dearest realm, but I certainly can’t find anything that I would actually describe as obsessive or destructive to her daughter. At the studio, Nina is a perfectionist ballerina of the worst kind. When she meets Mila Kunis’s character, Lily, she finds herself awestruck by Lily’s effortless ability to embrace the imperfect.
Nina presents to her audience a difficult conundrum. When presented with a first-person point of view, audiences almost naturally trust that point of view. We want to trust that point of view. But The Black Swan is about destroying that trust, distorting reality and presenting it as just slightly off enough for viewers to pause and wonder. For instance, in a party scene when Nina has been announced as the prima ballerina for the company’s latest production of Swan Lake, Nina hides out in the bathroom to overcome a momentary lapse in togetherness. She washes her hands, and as she rubs her fingers together, she locates a bit of skin hanging off the side of her index finger. Nina begins to remove the skin, but she pulls too hard and the skin continues to rip off the length of the finger, nearly down to her second knuckle. The blood is immediate and plentiful, and a panic-stricken Nina hurriedly rinses her finger off, wishing for the bleeding to miraculously stop. A knock on the single-occupancy bathroom door sends Nina into a full-on tizzy as her finger continues to bleed into the sink basin. Just as the door opens to reveal Lily, Nina realizes she’ll be discovered for destroying her finger on her announcement night; she looks down in shame…to find that her finger is fully intact. There’s not even the smallest amount of evidence that she had even scratched it.
At this moment, the viewer should be wondering, “Wait a damn minute. Who’s point of view should I really be trusting here?”
The movie continues in this way, sprinkling graphic scenes of self-mutilation with hallucinations of sexual encounters and voices whispering “sweet girl” whenever the lights turn out. Sometimes the other characters behave, at least for a little while, as though they are a part of Nina’s understanding of reality. And then, out of the blue, they’ll look at her like they are stunned at her accusations. We are left feeling bewildered at what we are witnessing. Nina’s legs bend backwards grotesquely to form swan-like legs. Her toes melt together in webs, which she feverishly attempts to split. She grows beautiful black feathers that become large wings to dance the Black Swan’s seduction scene. And finally, she stabs herself in the gut and dies after completing her first and only performance as the Swan Queen.
Of course, her physical transformations are obvious hallucinations. Prior to them, however, are some key encounters with characters that leave viewers scratching their heads. If Nina’s perception of reality and her presentation of it to us cannot be trusted, then what can we trust? For instance, when her mother calls the director on opening night to explain that Nina has become ill (from a psychotic break shown earlier), the other ballerinas are rightfully surprised to see their principal dancer walking hastily to her dressing room. Lily, who was assigned to be Nina’s back-up, screams to the director, “What is she doing here? She’s supposed to be sick!!” In that moment, the viewer might assume that Lily is more than a little miffed that she will not be performing the part of the Swan Queen on opening night. But here’s my question. Lily has never to that point in the movie shown any real interest in the part; she graciously congratulates Nina on her role and even offers her some friendly support. Lily has been nothing but perfectly genuine to Nina throughout the entire movie (if we discount Nina’s flawed hallucinations, of course). So, if this is true, if Lily has been such a wonderful friend to Nina up to the last minute, then why on Earth would she actually behave this way? I believe that Nina is experiencing another auditory hallucination. I do believe that Lily was surprised to see that Nina arrived after her mother called to apologize for her daughter’s sudden illness, but I also believe that Lily’s tone was actually more along the lines of, “Hey! Are you feeling okay? We thought you were sick!” The latter reaction would fit much more appropriately with Lily’s characterization (which we get snippets of between fantastical hallucinations).
When the audience cannot trust its narrator or the character who presents the only point of view, then what does the audience actually understand of the action surrounding that character?
Nina glides along in her life, determined to be the person everyone else desires her to be (or, rather more correctly, the person she believes everyone else desires her to be…despite their telling her otherwise). She does not own her Self, but neither does anyone else.
Because she is such a disjointed (albeit silent) narrator, her viewers are left distrusting her altogether and must negotiate the dark and twisting path she lays for them all on their own.
And, with that, I beg my subconscious to put Nina to rest and let me sleep undisturbed by inaccurate recollections of her hallucinations for the first time since Friday night.