Feminism / Films

The Mirror Has Two Faces: In ‘Black Swan’ Natalie Portman Gets in Touch with Her Darker Side

Much like the White Swan and the Black Swan in the film Black Swan, there’s the film critic Opinioness and the feminist Opinioness.  One loved the film; the other had a few problems with it.

Black Swan, a frenzied allegory, follows Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a principal ballet dancer in NYC.  She auditions to be the Swan Queen in the ballet director’s new version of “Swan Lake.”  The coveted role of the Swan Queen is split into the White Swan, pure and beautiful, and her evil twin the Black Swan, wild, seductive and destructive.  While the ballet’s artistic director knows the innocent Nina can embody the White Swan perfectly, he doesn’t think she possesses the anger and passion needed to play both roles equally.  As Nina works furiously to prove him wrong, she begins a dysfunctional friendship with her new rival dancer played by Mila Kunis, as she begins to delve deeper into the darker side of her personality.

As the film, Portman, Kunis and director Darren Aronofsky are all nominated for Golden Globes, this may be a good indicator of the Oscar nominations.  Do I think the film, the director and the female leads deserve their accolades?  Absolutely.  Portman (a fab actor AND a vegan!) in particular gives a phenomenal performance as the rigid, timid and obsessively perfectionist ballerina; a woman whose life and mind begin to spin out of her rigid control.  Kunis is also superb as her free-spirited and beguiling rival ballet dancer.  As the psychological thriller unfolds, you never quite know what the boundaries of reality.

The film is dark and gritty yet visually lush and evocative.  Tchaikovsky’s music fills the air as the costumes and choreography exude grace yet a sinister beauty.  The handheld camera frequently follows Portman from behind as she walks, seeing the world from her perspective.  In her dance moves, the camera whirls and twirls in a frenzied, dizzying manner so you feel dizzy, as if you are the dancer too, rather than a mere observer.  Mirrors are frequently used as a neo-Alice Through the Looking Glass as well as to convey the two sides, dark and light, good and evil, restrained and free, within Portman…and each of us.

So far so good, right?  Ah but the feminist in me sighed as I saw Portman pitted not only against her rival Mila Kunis but against her creepy, controlling mother played by Barbara Hershey as well. And the rivalry goes beyond mere petty jealousy.  We see the leading and supporting ladies exchange vitriolic words, slut-shaming and engaging in violent combat.  Hollywood frequently pits women against each other, in films, TV, reality shows, hell even in fashion magazines in who wore a dress better.

Now men have been portrayed to rival other men, Amadeus springs to mind.  F. Murray Abraham as the jealous composer Salieri battling his brilliant rival Mozart (Tom Hulce).  Spurred by jealousy, Salieri plots against Mozart, driven mad in the process.  Black Swan unintentionally parallels that tale as Portman continually looks over her shoulder, growing more and more paranoid, thinking that Kunis is plotting, out to get her and her coveted role as the Swan Queen.  While I’m all for films that showcase a woman getting in touch with her rage, I wish it hadn’t been directed towards the other women and herself.  And of course Portman’s Nina truly battles herself; the ballet director even says, “The only person standing in your way is you.”  But because there are so many more films about men as compared to women, we frequently see women in films (when they’re there at all) as rivals, competing for men, attention, you name it, rather than as comrades.

Echoing themes in All About Eve, the film also makes an interesting commentary on women and aging.  Winona Ryder, captivating in her small role, plays the principal ballerina whom Portman replaces.  When the other ballet dancers make cracks about Ryder’s character being elderly, Nina does come to her defense.  As Ryder is close to 40 (in real-life and in the film), her colleagues in the film view her as ancient, not too far a stretch for Hollywood either who offers less and less roles as women age. While men grow debonair and dashing as they age and still star in films, women become haggard and scarce in films.

Most of the buzz around the film swarms around the sex in the film, particularly a lesbian kiss between the two female leads.  And yes, there is sex including oral sex, Portman and Kunis’ kiss, the director groping Portman during rehearsals (um sexual harassment douchebag alert) and even advising her to masturbate (double douchebag alert…my feminist radar is going into overdrive!) in order to be less rigid and more of a risk-taker.  But not everything is as it seems.  The boundaries between reality and fantasy continually blur.  Nina’s mother treats her like a little girl, surrounding her with stuffed animals and music boxes, keeping tabs on her comings and goings.  Nina begins to grow more and more rebellious and comfortable with her rage.  By Nina getting in touch with her sexuality, it’s as if she’s shedding her cloak of girlhood.

In addition to women’s cattiness in the film, another problem I had with the film is the concept of eating, or rather not eating.  You rarely see Portman eating food in the film, aside from a creepy scene with her mother in which Hershey freaks out when Portman doesn’t want a slice of cake.  To placate her mother, Portman eats some frosting off of Hershey’s insistent finger.  Throughout the film, we see Portman running to the bathroom, throwing up in the toilet to maintain her already borderline skeletal figure.  In another scene a woman measures her and seems pleased that she’s lost weight.  In a scene where Kunis and Portman go to a restaurant, Kunis ravenously devours her food juxtaposing Portman pecking at her dish.

With the controversy over a NY Times’ critic’s unnecessarily callous comments about the New York City Ballet’s principals and their weight, this isn’t surprising.  Nor is it surprising to see ridiculously thin women in a film, especially a film about ballet dancers.  Portman and Kunis both endured grueling workouts.  Portman, who had grown up dancing ballet, trained for a year before filming began about 2 hours of dance a day leading up to 8 hours every day and added 1 mile of swimming a day.  Kunis trained for 5 hours every day.  Portman, who did most of her own dancing in the film, says she survived on ibuprofen and 5 hours of sleep a night. Both women lost about 20 pounds each for their roles.  Aronofsky makes a commentary about the extreme measures dancers endure.

The film was originally going to be about an understudy for a play.  Yet Aronofsky changed the setting from the theatre to the ballet.  As my bestie John points out in his movie review, Black Swan bookends Aronofsky’s last film The Wrestler (a fantastic and heartbreaking film) in which Mickey Rourke abuses his body, pushing it to his physical boundaries all to be successful in the world of wrestling.  In an interview with MTV, Aronofsky said,

“Wrestling some consider the lowest art—if they would even call it art—and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.”

As ballet dancers are the most hardcore athletes, in addition to being artists, it’s a wise move that Aronofsky changed the setting.  So is he saying that this drive to physical perfection will drive a person mad?  Are you your own greatest enemy?

The crux of the film lies in perfection.  Aronofsky portrays how dancers warm up, the burning, scraping and wetting of their shoes and the wrapping of their toes.  In real life, Portman cracked a rib while filming.  There’s a scene in which Nina is undergoing physical therapy, and yet art is imitating life as that is a real physical therapy session Portman endured for her dislocated rib that Aronofsky decided to film and use as footage.  Nina dances, practicing her moves over and over, torturing her body and mind to the brink of exhaustion.  We see her strained muscles pushing harder; her bones break, her fingernails ripped off, her toes snap, skin peels, blood gushes.  She continually declares that she just wants to be perfect.  And while her body fatigues, her paranoia grows; her mind appearing to unravel as well.  In an article about Natalie Portman in the January ’11 issue of Vogue, Aronofsky pretty much sums up the film when he says,

“The only way to be perfect is to allow chaos and madness into your life.”

Black Swan nightmarishly portrays the chaos and madness whirling in an artist’s life.  By tapping into her frustration and embracing her sexuality and anger, Portman’s restrained Nina forgoes control, freeing herself and ultimately achieves elusive perfection.  You will be mesmerized by Portman’s ferocious transformation, captivated by the final scenes.  In the midst of shocking and entertaining, the film asks the audience many lurid questions.  An amazing film that will leave you breathless (or perhaps sufficiently creeped out as it did my boyfriend!), haunting you long after the reel ends and the lights go on in the theatre.  In Black Swan, Aronofsky strives to convey the physical and emotional price we pay (pain, starvation, insanity) for artistic perfection.  I only wish he had done so without sabotaging his female characters.  Then both sides of The Opinioness would have been happy.

4 thoughts on “The Mirror Has Two Faces: In ‘Black Swan’ Natalie Portman Gets in Touch with Her Darker Side

  1. It is worth noting that the furious rivalry in the film is not really between Portman’s character and Kunis’ character; the entire thing is a hallucination, and the film is really depicting Portman’s relationship to HERSELF. The “real” dancer portrayed by Kunis is actually a very generous and supportive friend. As for Portman’s relationship with the mother, anyone who knows ballet dancers knows how realistic this portrayal is: the ballet world is full of ex-dancers and stage moms exactly like this mother.

  2. I was really taken by this film.
    I thought the story, the direction, the acting, everything, was superb.
    This is a film that lingers, long after you exit the cinema.

    I believe parts of it were, indeed, a hallucination, but not all of it.
    I think the relationships were real, and i believe her breakdown stemmed from the overwhelming stress she endured.
    Ahhh, the frayed ends of sanity (as Metallica once said)…

  3. Let’s not forget the overt satanic imagery peppered throughout the film and the satanic idea of “becoming” which is overtly shown by Portman’s red-eyed Black Swan with more than a hint that to trully “become” successful you have to embrace the darkside. The darkside in this is not even really hers. It clearly depicts something similar to a demonic possession. Yes, we know that her desire “possessed” her but this film has some pretty subversive overtones. There’s other messages deep down in this little film that cleverly align with the ideas of death of innocence and her dualistic relationship with herself. Not usually one to delve into this sort of thing, but really was pretty shocked at how blatant the symbolism was. And why do actors who portray madness or serial killers always win Best Actor / Actress awards? Are we supposed to admire this? I know evil and “bad” is supposed to be “cool” and “sexy” -well apparently. Finding it a bit tiresome really. I’m a creative and have never had to become mad or such like to reach creative heights. In the creative zone one can also tap into some pretty good vibes, vibes that are at the opposite spectrum of what is shown here. In the zone time stands still and outside concerns dissipate. No jealousy or the like. That’s the kind of creative process I prefer.

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