'Black Swan': Give Me More of That Bite

As much as Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is about art and artists, greed and gifts, it is also about costs.

Black Swan

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied
Rated: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-12-03 (Limited release)
UK date: 2011-01-21 (General release)

"You lost weight," notes the costume fitter. She barely looks at the ballerina before her, but instead peers at the numbers on her measuring tape, ordering Nina (Natalie Portman) to expose still more quantifiable flesh. Nina obeys, and as the older woman walks off screen, new numbers in hand, she stands before a mirror, her head turned back to regard her own bony shoulders.

What Nina sees during this moment reconfirms her fate in Black Swan. More mirrors behind her reflection create the illusion of many Ninas, each fearful and judgmental. She's lost weight, you know, because she's struggling with her role as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake her first starring turn in the fictional New York company, where she's labored in the chorus for years. For the moment he cast her, artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has made clear she's not up to the role. Whether this is a psychological ploy to provoke her to greatness or just cruelty, the effect is increasingly devastating. Nina, desperate to be "perfect," as she says more than once, absorbs every criticism, seeing in herself failure after failure.

Nina's collapse is familiar of course, and Darren Aronofsky's film underscores the meta-references to other movies (notably, The Red Shoes, The Company, and the director's The Wrestler), as well as the Tchaikovsky ballet per se: when Thomas announces his decision to put on the show, he admits Swan Lake has been "done to death, I know, but not like this: we strip it down and make it visceral and real." Aside from what this suggests about his warped sense of his own abilities ("Give me more of that bite," he urges her), Thomas' description introduces the film's simultaneous attention to bodies and fantasies -- all signs of Nina's earnest, interminable suffering.

Like Victoria Page or Randy the Ram, Nina feels a self-destructive mix of ambitions and limits. As with Randy, the camera tends to follow along behind her head, handheld and worrying as she walks long hallways or steps into the subway, but here, as the camera cuts to what she sees, her horror is palpable. When she spots kissy couples or a man who may or may not be jerking off across from her on the train (complete with wap-wap sound effect), Nina shrinks, looks away, and still can't escape her own dire self-image. Thomas articulates her doubts, conveniently: even as he says she's fully able to play the White Swan, Odette, he doubts she manage Odette, the black swan. "It’s a hard fucking job to dance both," Thomas sneers, goading her. "Perfection is not just about control," he observes, "It's about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience."

Trouble is, the film is mostly unsurprising. Save for Nina's personal, surreal traumas, which begin with glimpses of a broken toenail and escalate quickly to close-ups as she peels the skin of her back or fingers. Her self-abuse is increasingly bloody and visceral, certainly, but unreal too, a sign of her instability and pathology. For if her distress is symptomatic of her profession, it is also hers, individually. Nina again and again appears a victim, not only of Thomas ("I've got a little homework assignment for you: go home and touch yourself"), but also of her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) and a younger dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis).

At home, in their teeny apartment, Erica hovers, insisting Nina might not be good enough, at one moment offering cake she knows her daughter can't eat and at another hiding in her bedroom, wailing as she peers at her own misshapen face in a mirror framed by dozens of self-portraits, none flattering. "You’ve been itching yourself again," Erica complains, tending to wounds and then cutting Nina's fingernails too closely: kissing the bloody tip, Erica looks as if she's consuming Nina, or maybe another version of herself, more exquisite and less brutal.

At the studio, Nina's rattled by Lily's apparently natural gifts, her authenticity. "Watch the way she moves," Thomas instructs his Swan Queen, "Imprecise but effortless: she's not faking it." Nina believes and doesn't believe this story, as she begins to see in Lily another version of herself, an eager rival who wants to steal away her part (among other things). As Nina's pathology unfolds, you see she has felt this way about Beth (Winona Ryder), Thomas' previous muse, now too old and cast off. Nina has been taking totems from her dressing room (her lipstick, her cigarettes), a ritual of desire and absorption that can only leave her alone and empty.

As fervently as Nina takes Beth as her model, Thomas warns her against it: "Everything Beth does comes from with some dark impulse," he asserts as they huddle together, a huge and ominous fountain bursting behind them. "I guess that's what makes her so thrilling to watch, so dangerous, even perfect at times. But also, so damned destructive." Nina hangs onto his every word, utterly distracted at the very moment he advises, "Don't let yourself be distracted."

It's her "time," he goes on to say, the cliché hanging in the air and so distracting from Nina's teary agony (a cliché in its own right). The drama is thus self-conscious and cynical even as it's grand and excessive. In the movie versions of the ballerina's world, like the wrestler's, the boxer's or the stripper's (all artists in their own forms), physical aching and emotional anguish are inseparable, and both shape nightmarish vision. Like her tormented predecessors, Nina spends long minutes staring into mirrors, seeing her monstrous self (selves), framed by her bad mom and compared incessantly to her frightening, lascivious, ecstasy-popping rival, also, you know, bad. No matter whether her tormenters are in her head: she, like Beth (or like Randy the Ram) seethes with frustration, finds herself in a "dark" place.

As much as Black Swan is about art and artists, greed and gifts, it is also about costs. Nina pays, repeatedly. But she's also immersed in a recycled, easy-target world that never asks you to pay too.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.