So I saw Black Swan waaaay back when it came out, and I started to write up a review, and then I wandered away. This is what I managed to get out. ENJOY.
Trigger warnings for discussion of eating disorders, self-mutilation
The very short version: Black Swan is the most important movie ever made, for my personally. I’m not saying it’s the best example of any specific type of film-making, or that it’s my favorite movie, but the fact that this film got made and distributed is the most important thing cinema has ever done for me. Watching it was watching an artifact of genius, and the very particular kind of genius that articulates ideas and realities that I already almost fully understood but hadn’t yet put together and synthesized into a real thought for myself. Black Swan is an expression of one of the most fundamental and personal experiences of my entire life, because it is a thorough and empathetic documentation of what it is to be a woman in the society I live in.
The very long version: Black Swan is a really complicated film, and I think the reason it succeeds on *any* level is because for all that the film is doing, there is still a clear meaning and story behind everything going on. I saw a quote from the director a while back about how a some themes people were saying the film covered weren’t actually there or some shit, and that it was just people putting themselves into the work and not the work itself...I don’t know, it was kind of a dumb quote which is why I’m not putting in any effort to track it down. My point is -- no fucking shit, living vs. dead authors, etc etc etc, and obviously I don’t think at any point anyone involved said, “let’s make a movie that’s secretly the most feminist fucking thing to ever be mass-marketed to American audiences.” What I’m saying is, if you want to know what it’s like to be a woman, and what society does to you as a woman, this movie is like a goddamn documentary of most of the major forms of psychological torment that ladies go through just by being ladies.
Okay some high-level stuff - I’m a white cis-gendered woman and I’m writing ALL of this from that perspective, and while I might usually try and scrub my language a little bit more, it is impossible for me to write about this film without writing about myself. That’s kind of the whole point - that it was intensely personal for me, but personal not because it was about that time I got beat up at school or my first boyfriend or my various hairstyles; it was personal because it turned every shitty thing that we as a culture excuse away under Lady Issues into a narrative that is possible for anyone (read: dudes) to understand. Black Swan creates an experience for the viewer of being a woman, regardless of the viewer’s gender. But it also does a lot more than that, and so I’m just going to start breaking this down:
The Pretty Ballerina Story Angle
On a very superficial level, the story of the film is good, interesting, well-written and well-executed. The acting across the board is phenomenal, the direction is at a level of creative-yet-not-trying-too-damn-hard that most people will never be at, and the film just *looks so perfect*. The color palette for everything, from the clothes to the set design, is like the inside of a dancer’s rehearsal wardrobe. My only complaint is that I didn’t see enough ripped to shit holes in everyone’s legwarmers and sweaters, but maybe in this particular company, they pay enough that dancers can afford to throw out their warm-up clothes once they’re rags (yeah, right). I liked that the main characters were double-cast, right down to them being listed that way in the film’s end credits -- the script executed the “play within a play within a film” conceit very well, and I never found myself wincing at the dialogue or predictability of the plot (I’m looking at you, Inception). So if you just want to see a film about ballerinas and their psychological trauma, the film definitely delivers that.
The Body (Horror) Angle
It’s no mistake that a story about a ballerina works as a template for a larger story about women's’ experience -- so much of being a woman is performance, and ballet is in a way a translation of the subtle non-verbalized rules of “successful” femininity that we’re all socialized with into a formalized system. To be a good ballerina, you have to literally transform your body, and you have to start really early if you want a shot at being remarkable. (A casual friend in high school told me a story once about how from ages 7-9, she slept on her stomach with her knees pushed out and the soles of her feet together, so her bones would grow into proper turn-out position while she slept. Ballet!) The disordered eating shown without comment in the film is not by any means a problem that limits itself to ballerinas, nor is the constant self-evaluation and self-comparison to the bodies of other women that motivates it. Much is made of how hard the main character, Nina, works, and a good chunk of the movie is spent either watching Nina watch herself in mirrors, work by herself, or work with others on her choreography. The camera in these scenes focuses in on Nina’s body parts and her movement, moving quickly through space to try to keep up with her turns and jumps. For the first time in cinema I finally had some sense as a viewer of how goddamn hard it is to dance ballet choreography.
And then there is the touching. Everyone touches Nina. Not affectionately, but to control or correct her body in various ways. The choreographer, briefly. The director, constantly - and when he isn’t touching Nina, he is verbally abusing her for not moving her body correctly. Almost every scene with Nina’s mother features her scrutinizing Nina’s body and criticizing it or what Nina’s “done” to it (compulsive scratching). When that isn’t enough, her mom grabs scissors and cuts Nina’s nails (and thus sometimes cuts Nina). I cannot think of a more direct symbol of a character’s agency than their hands - the things they use to interact with the world. Nina’s are grabbed, controlled, tied down, and cut by others, until she takes to (fantasizing about) mutilating them herself. Also, one of Nina’s key struggles in the film’s is to get enough privacy and space to masturbate, to touch herself on her own terms. This happens once, possibly, although Nina’s mental state is deliberately so muddled that the viewer is left unsure what, exactly, happened (if anything).