Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
When I first heard news about Darren Aronofsky's latest project, 'Black Swan,' I was skeptical as to its success, but an atmospheric and ominous trailer won me over immediately. You can watch it below. Early reviews have been mainly positive and although I'm dying to take a peek, for now I'll happily indulge in a bit of blind faith as I share some thoughts on the film's trailer, which drips with symbolism and dark intrigue.
For those of you who haven't been seduced by 'Black Swan's' premise yet -- the film revolves around Nina (Natalie Portman), rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), past prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder), their stage director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), and Nina's overbearing, veteran ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey). As the dancers approach an important performance, the friction between Nina and Lily grows. Soon, the psychologically fragile ballerina becomes more reckless as her relationship with Lily transforms her and she becomes overwhelmed with erotic tension, supernatural mystery, and a Hitchcockian foreboding.
It's no mere coincidence that the female cast of 'Black Swan' resemble each other -- as Aronofsky propels the dichotomy of the White and Black Swan to twisted psychological effect. Nina seems to be a character fractured by her own anxiety, fear and sexual stuntedness. She appears to become a vessel for the people in her life – absorbing their neuroses and complications, which creates a kind of hive mind – a collective psyche torn and bursting at the seams.
Everything about Nina's world that we gather from the few minute trailer reinforces this. We see the strained interactions between Nina and her suffocating mother, who as a former dancer seems to put an immense amount of pressure on her daughter to not only be the best, but to never grow up. Nina is referred to as "girl" by her mother, her bedroom is decorated for that of an adolescent, and the nature of ballet itself is rampant with social physique anxiety – the pressure to maintain a lithe (young girl-like) figure.
(Ballet itself is ripe with doppelgängers)
Lily incites feelings of self-doubt as she becomes the barometer to judge Nina's sultriness and ability to perform as the darker half of her dance persona – the Black Swan. Nina on her own seems innocent and reserved, but next to Lily she's practically frigid.
Thomas, of course, stirs the pot of insecurity – acting as a kind of sexual Svengali. When we see the stage director murmur to and stroke Nina during a dance demonstration, she looks absolutely bewildered – no doubt in part that she is now being faced with the notion of finding her own sensuality and setting it on display for others to see. She's even too ashamed to explore her own body freely in the privacy of her own bedroom (she masturbates face down – hiding).
We don't see much of former 'Swan' starlet Beth in the film's trailer, but various synopses I've read indicate that she becomes distraught when forced to retire from the stage. I think it's safe to conclude that there is no love lost between these two, and that Nina probably feels horrified by Beth's fate, simply for the fact that she too will be put to pasture one day.
All the doppelgängers of Nina's wounded subconscious definitely recall films like Polanski's 'Repulsion' and 'The Tenant,' but Aronofsky's use of what appears to be a series of self-portrait drawings in Nina's bedroom reminds me of Oscar Wilde's 'Picture of Dorian Gray' and his use of mirrors recalls Primo Levi's story, 'The Mirror Maker.' Timoteo was born in a family of mirror makers, but had a vision of putting his own twist on the looking glass. His "Metamir" was a flexible mirror, that when applied to the forehead would reflect the looker's perceptions rather than reality. On his mother, Timoteo was reflected as the perfect angel. On his girlfriend, he saw a broken and weak man. On another woman, Timoteo was reflected as the ideal man. The illusions and invented narratives of Nina's life eventually overtake her, and it's as though she becomes a Metamir herself – reaching to preserve and insist upon her very existence by creating these doubles. That these dramas are played out through 'Black Swan's' rich and gorgeous theatrics is intoxicating.
As Antonin Artuad describes in his manifesto, 'The Theater and Its Double,' " ... If we address ourselves theatrically to the unconscious, it is merely to take from it what it has been able to collect (or conceal) of accessible everyday experience." Clearly Nina's experiences have taken their toll. Whether or not she is able to embrace or overcome the dream-myth personae without them destroying her in the process remains to be seen.