This week on Required Viewing we go from a sweet coming-of-age tale set in the New York ballet world to the dark, twisted, surreal side of that same environment. It’s a ballet story as only Darren Aronofsky could tell it: Black Swan. This psychological thriller dances all along the bridge between our last two installments, Donnie Darko and Center Stage. At turns, it’s alternately gorgeous and haunting, but it’s always captivating.
AM, kick us off. What did you make of Aronofsky’s foray into ballet? What about it made me insist you watch it in the wake of Center Stage?
A: First of all, I had always intended to see Black Swan, but then I got busy not seeing it, and never did make the time. I don’t know enough about Aronofsky to form an opinion (although I have seen The Wrestler!), but I like Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis a lot. And the idea of a dance movie that shows in detail the work that goes into the craft? I was definitely interested.
At first, I was skeptical about this film’s similarities to Center Stage, but aside from the literal cracking up of a character, there’s actually a ton in common. Dancers who have worked their whole lives for one seminal performance. Tutus. A demanding and overbearing male company director. Swan Lake is even a common thread. But where Center Stage is rather lighthearted (aside from realistically dealing with the women’s body issues), Black Swan is a trip. I consider myself lucky that I’ve never felt the amount of pressure that Nina feels from her mom and her company director. Especially a mom who WATCHES YOU SLEEP and a company director who seems always on the verge of raping you. Eeeek. That’s intense, but that’s only the start.
So, if this world was transposed into the world of Laguna Beach, Nina can be considered a Jessica, and Lily is definitely a Kristin. Does that make Thomas a #TeamNeverStephen? Discuss.
B: To clarify, you don’t have an opinion about the movie? Or you don’t have an opinion about the movie in the larger context of the Aronofsky canon? Because we’re going to fix that. < Insert cruel laugh here. >
Now, as to this troubling, but not unfair Laguna analogy, I’m not sure if Thomas (pronounced Toe-mah) is a #TeamNeverStephen, he’s pretty out there about what’s going on in his world. Remember the awkward interview scene that more or less culminates in Thomas declaring, “I don’t want there to be any boundaries between us.” And a short while later the dinner scene in which Lily (Mila Kunis) wryly observes, “You just have to let him lick your pussy”? I feel like Thomas is a less adorable, older, in a position of power, Talan. Discuss that.
And speaking of our resident Kristin, can we talk about the number of ways Nina’s life would have been improved had she just been friends with Lily? Getting the part without having to prove that she can be seductive as the Black Swan? Check. Telling her mom to back the eff off? Check. Living enough in herself to not need to swipe Beth’s things? Check. Not projecting all sorts of craziness onto Lily? Check. I council it, but in this case, I definitely relate more to Nina — she’s removed and looking in at someone who can do what she can’t, not for all her effort, her discipline or her technique. I’d like to think I’m that naturally and flawlessly great at anything, but … I mean, I’m a Ravenclaw, so studying up is sort of my thing. You know?
Tell me, AM. Why did I make you watch this movie? And why do I dig it so?
A: Oh, I definitely meant the film at hand in the context of the Aronofsky oeuvre. I do have an opinion of Black Swan. Come on. Have you not met me?
Verdict: I liked it. Would I watch it again? Hmmm. Not sure. It was fascinating to watch, but watching someone lose their mind is hard to actually view. Like all good films, it’s got the pedigree of acting, writing and production design. So yes, I did like it.
Brooke, I think you like it because of the above reasons, and we watched it now because it thematically fits in with Center Stage (as mentioned above). We do enjoy eating carbs whilst ballerinas starve themselves (literally in this case) and work out for 10 hours a day. #hardpass
But do you also like it because it’s the worst-case scenario and cautionary tale of your Ravenclaw proclivities? I know you like Aronofsky’s world crafting and dedication to the Method of Moviemaking. And I would also presume that you enjoyed watching Portman’s performance go to a super real place over the course of the mental breakdown / rehearsal progression of Swan Lake?
I dunno about Nina being friends with Lily. Lily’s the bad girl that Nina just isn’t, and that scares her (for good reason — homegirl spiked her drink with drugs!). Nina could loosen up, but I think her rival and her company director physically assaulting her (whether in her mind or in real life) isn’t a great way to make that happen. The reason this is interesting is that each character is so far over to the extremes of what a dancer should or could be. Nina is technically perfect, but she lacks emotion. Lily lacks any sort of discipline (how has she made it this far, actually?) but she dances with raw energy. People do pay to see that.
This is the second dance movie to bring up Margot Fontaine. There’s a segment in a Christmas movie that I’ll make you watch, Brooke, that will make you chuckle as it pertains to Margot. But in the meantime, I feel like I should have watched Margot Fontaine dance in person. Apparently, she’s the gold standard of dancer you simply can’t take your eyes from.
If you’re all technical and studious, what does that make me?
B: Oh Annemarie, you know me so well. I love Aronofsky for his vision and precision of course, but what really gets me about him, and this movie, in particular, is that unflinching gaze of his. This picture takes something — ballet — that is considered so pure and innocent by so many and peels away those assumptions. Slowly, agonizingly, relentlessly. The tension is unbearable, and therefore, delicious. Also, this movie is key in my long-standing quest to make you watch all of the Winona Ryder flicks.
If I’m technical and studious that makes you … Thomas? No, I jest. You are probably more studious than me, but also a little bit cooler. So possibly, the darkest version of you is an analog to Beth. You’re not as impulsive as she is, but dark timeline Annemarie might be.
So here’s a thing I just realized. All of the key women in this film, less Mommy Dearest, have four-letter names. Does that mean nothing or everything? I think that at one point you floated the idea that Nina was actually projecting onto Beth and Lily having created Nina Doppelgängers of them in her mind. Does this convince you of that at all?
We’ve nearly wrapped this thing without touching on something so, so important. The mise-en-scene. The visual effects merit conversation, but even more importantly, let’s talk costumes and wardrobe. I’m feeling girly, indulge meeee.
A: OoooOOOOooohhhh I’m now fully convinced that at least part of what Lily and Beth did in this film were purely in the mind of Nina. I would surmise that they exist as people, but they perhaps had little to actually do with Nina and she just imagined it all. If “imagine” is the correct word for losing your damn mind.
The most obvious costume note is that of white vs black. Nina wears almost exclusively white and light pink for most of the film until she gradually starts wearing grays, but I don’t believe she ever wears black until she’s fully morphed into the Black Swan, yes? Meanwhile, Lily wears all black, all the time. Because she’s badass and the literal opposite of Nina. Like I said, it’s pretty on the nose, but effective. There’s also the vocal stylings of the two women. Nina hardly raises her voice above a cautious whisper, while Lily is all sass, loudly barging in late into rehearsal.
New York and the glamorous world of ballet feel claustrophobic. Even when the ceiling is high in the rehearsal spaces, it feels like it’s falling down on you. When Nina lets loose, the restaurant and club appear to be closing in on the sides. The VFX additions make a cool and dramatic addition to Nina’s spiral downward, from the downright creepy (I cannot even think about the finger skin pulling thing without a full body cringe) and the grandiose (the black wings sprouting fully as Nina’s eyes bulge red…wow).
All the subtext is exhausting, and I didn’t have a chance to do my barre. I’m off to warm up for the big show!
B: So basically, what you’re saying is, take Lily’s wardrobe and approach to life 10 times out to 10? I agree. Apart from the glorious costume choices, I love the stage design and the color palette. It’s mindblowing how much resonance we get from so little. It is stark and foreboding and absolutely gorgeous. I’m not saying I want to go to there, but I wouldn’t be mad if I was suddenly there.
That wraps up our discussion of Black Swan, but you know we’ll be back. And next time …
A: Oh yes, it’s interesting that I was reminded of Laguna when writing this, as it’s back! We have the second half of season two coming up next. We shall see if Kristin gets another lobster plate for three for one.