Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Movie Bitch: Black Swan

So my brother and father sat down one evening to watch The Big Lebowski (or however you spell it). I have never seen it. I want to. I just, you know, never found the time. Anyway, at one point my brother turned to my Dad and said "Holy shit. This is the inside of your head."

Black Swan is the inside of mine.

Seriously. It's as if someone sat down, made a list of all the things I wanted, dreamed about and was afraid of and put them into a movie. A beautifully scored, wonderfully costumed, well acted, holy shit did that just happen kind of movie. Everything that has ever been important to me, with the notable exception of religion, appears in it. I was in tears when it ended. I'm not entirely sure why. Probably because it opened a couple of very old wounds along the way.

I also am very glad that when my Dad and I were planning on seeing it, we dodged into Tron: Legacy instead. I love it, but I do not think I could have watched it with my father.

First off, the film is marketed as a dance story, which it is, and as a fatal-attraction, Single White Female sort of story, which it is not. I expected to see Nina and Lily have a catfight halfway through the movie over who got the lead role, lots of backbiting and name caling, mean pranks and some dangerous, deadly finale during the opening night preformance. Which I got. Sort of. In reality, Black Swan is the story of someone haunted by themselves. It's also a story about Self Injury. Consider this your official trigger warning. Which, BTW, they ought to put on the DVD cover.

The movie opens with Natalie Portman's character, Nina, dancing as Odette in Swan Lake. The name Odette is never mentioned. The famous role is renamed the "Swan Queen" for the course of the movie, which, you know, works. Everybody knows the ballet, not everybody knows the particulars, and the writers chose not to clutter up the scenery with extra names. Also, naming the White Swan/Black Swan Odette and Odile, respectively, would have turned these two symbolic parts into, well, characters from a ballet. Points to the writers, folks. Nina then wakes up in her very bedroom and starts telling her mother about her dream. She practices ballet streaches in front of a mirror for a few minutes, showing us that she is a ballerina, and then she goes to her job as a soloist in a ballet company. During rehearsal, the company director first summarizes the ballet for anyone who's never seen/heard of it before, simultaneously establishing the the White Swan/Black Swan theme, and taps Nina and several other dancers for an audition.

The film does a beautiful job of building up these scenes, using color, props, costuming--Nina's pink bedroom full of stuffed animals and girly stuff, her fluffy white scarf, her rival Lily's black costume and heavy eyeshadow--to establish characters and to distract you from the primary story, which is Nina's mental collapse. A straightforward interpretation, ignoring the subtexts Self Injury adds, is that the Black Swan is Nina's Dark Side and this has been done to fucking death already, why are we back here again? But when you add in SI, things shift. Nina's Bedroom, for example, and I can't believe I'm using artsy fartsy critic-speak here, becomes symbolic of family pressure and the need to fit, exactly, into the pre-defined roles our family gives us. Everything is pink because Nina has to remain a child--her mother's child. She has to succeed because her mother wants her to. Without the SI, it's symbolic of innocence. With it, that room is a prison. The white she wears is not symbolic of innocence--it's perfection. It's something she must put on and wear, all the time. It's interesting that when she deviates from her mother's expectations, she first puts on a black shirt. It's not "loosing her innocence"--cutters don't have innocence to lose. Instead, she's dropping the appearance of perfection and letting herself be free. Also, Black isn't sex or sensuality--it's the urge to hurt yourself. It's the color the world goes when you hit the point of no return and you lose control.

Anyway, Nina believes she flubs the audition and goes home to her mother. Who is. Very. Controlling. There is a room full of pictures of nothing but Nina that her mother paints every night. Symbolic, I'd say, of the role Nina is expected to fill in the family. She needs to be this way. Her mother spends all her time rebuilding this picture of the ideal Nina, and comparing it to the real Nina, and reminding the real Nina that she's not measuring up. Nina's problems with SI first manifest onscreen as scratching one spot on her shoulder until it bleeds, and as bulimia. Her mother overreacts to the first, and completely ignoring the second as an occupational hazard of Ballet.

Nina gets the role of Swan Queen, but with one caveet. She has to dance both the White Swan--the perfect, virginal role--and the Black Swan--the seductive creature that lures the prince away from the Swan Queen. And poor, perfectionist, uptight Nina cannot loosten up enough to give a good preformance as the Black Swan. The director gives her some advice, including a "homework" assignment requiring her to go home and masturbate in an attempt to loosen her up a bit, first. Which I guess you could ague is an attempt to shoehorn sex in there and kickstart the "loss of innocence" plot ... but ...

 The movie wants you to think, you know, here is this big, scary man seducing the virginal girl by getting her to masturbate first. However, this is a girl whose only interaction with herself is to cause pain. Now she is being told to give herself pleasure. While this might only sound sexual to somebody who hasn't done it, trust me, it's not. It's like being an anorexic confronted with a gigantic steak. To masturbate--which is unacceptable in her role as the Perfect Daughter--she has to drop the discipline and self-control that has, she thinks, made her successful. She has to undo all her hard work. One moment of pleasure is not to be allowed, and yet she has to allow it if she wants to keep the role. 

This, I think, is the heart of the story. It's not the doppleganger plot, or the fatal attraction plot. The stuff in the main plot--Lily, the costuming choices, the ballet--are all symbols of what's going on inside of Nina's head. The White Swan is what Nina wants--both the role, and the success it symbolizes for her. Her drive to get it puts so much pressure for perfection on her, she has begun to break. She scratches until blood runs down her back. She dances until the blisters pop. She eats half a grapefruit and throws it back up before she has half a chance to digest it. She can't allow herself pleasure to eat, or date. She can't rest long enough for her feet to heal. And now that dream is almost here ... but to get it, she has to allow the parts of herself she hates the most--imperfection, passion, sensuality, sexuality and freedom--to come back. And it's the effort of bringing back what she has repressed that makes her fly apart.

Nina does complete her "homework", only to discover that her mother was asleep in her room the whole night, watching so that Nina doesn't start scratching herself in her sleep. It's the combination of masturbation, the little-girl fantasy bedroom Nina has, and her overprotective mother being in the room that is just ... awesome. Overtly, it's the quintessential awakening-to-sexuality scene, but again, there's more to it than that. See, this is a failure to Nina. She's doing something amoral and imperfect--masturbating--and her mother is there. It doesn't matter that she isn't caught. She's failed to be perfect. She's failed her mother. She's failed her role in the family. This ups the pressure on her psyche another notch. She can't let herself slip like that again.

Meanwhile, she and Lily, one of the other dancers, develop a very odd relationship. Lily tries hard to be friends with Nina, but she's also Nina's understudy, and she dances the Black Swan better than Nina. Nina feels the director, Tomas, would rather have Lily in the role because she has the freedom Nina can't find. Lily follows Nina home one evening, interrupting Mom on a SI inspection.

By the way? Never. Do. This. Ever. Cutting and Self Injury are usually shame reactions, self-punishment for something the cutter perceives as a failure. Being inspected for cuts is humiliating, especially if you don't have fresh cuts to find. If you have not cut in a while and you are subjected to an inspection, you feel as if you have failed. If you had done a good job recovering, after all, they wouldn't feel they need to look, would they? It adds more shame and pressure to an already unstable mix and can trigger an episode. Also? You've just told the cutter you expect perfection from them. This ensures that the cutter will never go to you for help when they're triggered, and will go out of their way to hide an episode from you after. If they feel performance anxiety regarding their relationship with you, you are not ever going to get far enough inside to actually help them. It is far more important to mantain open, non-stressful communication than it is to catch them every time they draw blood.

Nina refuses to allow her mother to inspect her scratches, and before it can turn into a "thing", Lily is at the door inviting Nina out to dinner and drinks. Nina decides to continue her defiance and go out with Lily, who gives her something I assume was estacy and takes her out dancing. Also, there is a scene where Lily eats a big-ass hamburger in front of Nina, and makes out with two guys. Everything Nina can't allow herself to do. This is where she puts on the black shirt, goes upstairs and takes drugs and spends the whole night dancing uncontrolled to techno music. She's stepped outside of her role, outside of herself, and oh god, does it backfire on her later. Nina leaves the dance club with Lily, takes a cab home, mouths off to her mother (about. Fucking. Time) and makes out with Lily in the middle of that god-awful fluffy pink bed.

Then Lily turns into a black-garbed, over-eyeshadowed Nina and tries to smother the other Nina with a pillow.

In the morning, Nina is late for rehearsal and finds Lily dancing her role. This IMHO is where Nina really starts falling apart. She hurt and disappointed her mother, she let Tomas and the company down, and she might have just lost her role as Swan Queen to Lily. Nina has just failed bigtime. She accuses Lily of planning the whole thing: Getting her drunk, taking her home, making out and then making sure that she overslept. Lily says that she went home with two guys from the bar, not with Nina, and then accuses Nina of having a lesbian wet dream about her. Nina begs Tomas to have anyone else be her understudy, and Tomas just shrugs her off. Nina goes home and begins to see black feathers grow out of her skin. she collapses and hits her head on her bed. When she wakes up, she discovers her mother has taped socks over her hands so she can't scratch AND has called her in sick with the company, so she won't dance as Swan Queen opening night. She's not "well enough".

This is another big thing that makes me thing the story is about SI and not doubles. Fucked up families tend to do things like that. Success is not an option. They won't know what to do with it. Self-sabotauge and failure are part of the role Nina is expected to play in. She's the fragile child who needs to be protected, even from herself. By leaving, she removes herself entirely from the family role. Now her only obstacle is to get around herself. 

Nina gets to the theater, puts on her costume and does marginally well until she panicks on the dance floor, forcing her pas de deux partner to drop her. She returns to her dressing room to find Lily in the Black Swan costume. When Lily turns around, she's Nina, and she says that she ought to dance the part, because White Swan Nina can't do it. They fight, and Nina knocks Lily/Nina into a mirror, then stabs her with a shard of glass. Lily dies. Then Nina hides the body, dresses herself as the Black Swan, and flat-out nails the part. After all, it doesn't matter now that she isn't perfect. She's committed the ultimate crime. Her life is over. She might as well live this up.

She also hallucinates that she turns into a swan while dancing.

She goes back to her dressing room to re-dress as the white swan. Someone knocks on the door, and she answers it.

It's Lily. Alive. Unharmed.

I think this is where the movie symbolism got flat-out brilliant. Through the whole movie, Lily is dressed in black. This is the first scene where we see her in white, as one of the corps dancers about to go on stage. Nina looks down and realizes that she stabbed herself with that piece of glass, and that she is hemmoraging into her costume. She goes out, completes the ballet, collapses and has the melodramatic fade to black (or in this case, white) that everyone expected.

If you don't get the SI part of the movie, I think that it's a pretty straight-forward Single White Female type thrillar with an M Night Shamalyan twist at the end. If you do get it though...holy. shit. Especially that last scene. Remember where I said that Nina committed the unforgivable crime? For a cutter, it is to show the black part of themselves, the whatever-it-is they've been trying to keep reigned in with pain and self-punishment. You can forgive failing to do a thing. You cannot forgive letting people see that part of yourself.

With the SI interpretation, being a ballerina is not Nina's dream. Her goal is to exorcise the dark part of herself, or failing that, to redeem it by being perfect, beautiful and desirable. This is why discovering that she needs her darkness breaks her, and why she has to destroy herself to allow the Black Swan to take over--her every day persona cannot and will not allow that part of herself to surface without first doing everything in its power to prevent it, and then punish herself for letting it show.

It's also interesting that the boundery between the SI and the Ballet is extremely blurred. Her unconsious scratching is the only aspect not intimately connected to her dancing. Her bullimia could be occupational--in that she feels she must be small to fit her costumes and roles--but most likely is not. Her marathon practice sessions often come as a punishment for failing to impress Tomas, and not because she actively loves to dance. In fact, she shows no joy in dancing until she gets to the very end and the Black Swan takes over. Even the masturbation and the lesbian make-out scene fit into the theme of Self-Injury--sex and shame are very interconnected, and often Self Injury is a symptom of guilt over sexual abuse. Projecting guilt onto someone else--in this case, projecting Nina's guilt for failing to impress onto Lily, and her imagining Lily as a rival--is a common symptom of late-stage addiction.

So to go full out air-head ... the White Swan is both the appearance of perfection AND the impulse to self-harm--Nina is in white when she stabs Not-Lily in the dressing room, when she discovers that she stabbed herself, and when she finally collapses from her wound. The Black Swan is the thing the perfectionism and SI repress--the true self, and also the shame that this true self exists.  I don't want to call it Nina's id, because the id and a cutter's shadow-self are not exactly the same thing. The id is part of the shadow-self, but id implies that the shadow is completely repressed, and for a cutter it's right up near the surface and bleeding through the cracks. In the end, the White Swan destroys itself and the Black Swan triumphs. Cutters get two choices: destroy the perfectionist or be destroyed by it. Enjoy the shadow-self, or lose ourselves while fighting it.

Nina destroyed herself. I hope the rest of us can do better.

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