I saw Black Swan on Friday night. For those of you who don’t know, Black Swan is a Gothic horror movie. It is in the creepy, surreal style of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories about beating hearts, casks of amontillado, and houses of Usher.
Some people have said that Black Swan is about psychology, about a performer getting too much in character, about how performance can drive you mad. That’s just not true. Nina (Natalie Portman), the hero of Black Swan, starts going crazy before she even auditions for the part of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She’s a ballet dancer, has been doing this all her life, and is about to reach the pinnacle of her career. But ballet is her obsessive focus, her monomania, abetted by her mother (Barbara Hershey), who gave up a career in ballet to raise her. I think what’s really happening is that a lifetime of pressure to succeed at one thing, of work at one thing, is finally tipping Nina past the breaking point.
Then what happens is terrific Gothic horror material. Hallucinations where Nina sees transformed versions of herself. Various dreams and nightmares in a tortured life which culminates in those two old standbys, sex and murder. It’s all very well done, intense and shocking and hard to stop watching. The ending, in particular, is just phenomenal, a fitting climax during which I had to remind myself to blink.
All this isn’t to say the movie is deep. It’s not really interested in human psychology at all, in fact. It dives down to a certain level, and then just stops going. There are tired cliches about sexual dominance, favoritism, and liberation, which made it easy to see why one friend tells me it’s a “very masculine” film despite the female lead characters. It is masculine. It’s also not really interested in anything as difficult as insight or wisdom.
In fact, all the best sequences of Black Swan have one thing in common: the real main character of the movie, Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky. The opening sequence, my favorite scene in the whole film, has Nina dreaming of dancing the lead role at the very opening of Swan Lake, set against Tchaikovsky’s spectacularly emotional music. There are a lot of fascinating quirks of this opening shot (both lead dancers change costumes!), but it’s Tchaikovsky who really “makes it.”
All the best scenes are set to Tchaikovsky, or to Clint Mansell’s soundtrack, which is just a bunch of variations on themes by Tchaikovsky. It’s amazing how many numbers from Swan Lake are used, and how skillfully they are used; notice the terrifying music which pervades some of Nina’s hallucinations, or the exuberantly happy number which overlays the murder scene. That’s what makes it extra-spooky.
Going into Black Swan, I thought it would be a Heath-Ledger-in-Batman type thing: artist gets too close to part, goes bananas. It’s not that. It’s an old-fashioned horror flick, though more gory and graphic than Hitchcock. The gore is a cheap trick; Hitchcock could do more with a single drop of blood than director Darren Aronofsky can do with open wounds. But Black Swan is trying to freak you out rather than disgust you. It’s also not trying to depress you. My flatmate Sophie and I agreed that, even though some people told us Black Swan was depressing, it’s really not depressing at all. The ending is–well, it’s not what you want to happen, but it does feel really satisfying.
Best Picture? Black Swan is definitely not. It’s fairly shallow, really, and based on artifice. Its chief strengths are excellent visuals; excellent performances by Natalie Portman, the evil (or maybe good?) Mila Kunis, the cruel (or maybe good?) Vincent Cassel, and Barbara Hershey as Portman’s loving but perhaps domineering mother; and, most of all, the heroic performance of the main character, Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky pervades the movie. He’s in every scene, and his music both frames the story and cues us in to how we should be feeling.
And, of course, there are two more Tchaikovsky connections. First of all, symbolically, Black Swan really is just Swan Lake retold. Nina starts as the White Swan, both in the ballet and in real life: trying to court a prince in the ballet, trying to court happiness and purpose in life. Then she turns into the Black Swan, trying to court a prince and also to find release. Then–well, if you know the ending of Swan Lake, you know the ending of Black Swan.
The last Tchaikovsky connection only just came to me: remember how I compared Nina to Heath Ledger as the Joker? A better analogy would be Tchaikovsky as himself. Tchaikovsky, closeted homosexual that he was, spent his whole life playing a public role as the socially acceptable Tchaikovsky. Eventually the duplicity tore him apart. We still don’t know if he committed suicide intentionally or by careless mistake.
If you’ve seen Black Swan, that description will remind you of one of its characters. The movie doesn’t just use Swan Lake as a backdrop. Every last bit of its success is thanks to Tchaikovsky, and every last one of its failings are deviations from Tchaikovsky’s own script.