August 25, 2012

Queer Review: Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writers: Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied

Darren Aronofsky is a master at creating and depicting characters whose minds are in the process of disintegrating. In Black Swan Aronofsky uses his considerable talents to create a compelling examination of the price that must paid for sexual repression.

When Nina (Natalie Portman), one of the hardest working ballarina's in the company lead by Mr. Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is awarded the lead role of the White Swan in Swan Lake, she is thrilled. However, Nina finds herself in direct competition with a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis) who embodies the dark and sensual nature of the Black Swan. Thus begins a modern day retelling of Swan Lake.

The Queering
The notion that humans harbor dual personalities occupying opposite poles on the spectrum of good and evil, is an old one. For ages, stories such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have used this concept as their basis. Freuds' conception of the id, the ego, and the super ego, can be seen as a corollary. Although, I cannot think of too many versions that have used a female protagonist to demonstrate this idea, making Black Swan something of a first. This is quite likely due to the fact that society views woman and girls as simply innocent and pure, without any dark beasts lurking within.

That is not the only thing that makes Black Swan such an intriguing film. While Nina never "comes out" as a lesbian or admits to same sex desire, she consistently rejects advances from male suitors - even when she's on inhibition lowering drugs or in situations where giving in would benefit her career - but it is clear that she desires, and even eventually ends up having sex with, her arch nemesis Lily.

Even though Nina never comes out as a lesbian or bisexual, the lesbian sex scene establishes her as having same sex desire. The question is, just how queer is she? In one scene, Nina admits that she has had several boyfriends and is no longer a virgin. This made me wonder if this was simply a lie in order to remain in the closet. Or maybe it was not a lie, she never specified that she lost her virginity with the boyfriends. Did they exist, but were simply beards? In short, forget about the rule of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Arronofsky has managed to find an interesting use for the cinematic rule of "show, don't tell".

One of the themes addressed by Arronofsky, is the intense pressures put upon performers. Nina is obviously a character whose mind is fraying and not just at the edges. It is clear that she has worked insanely hard at becoming the best dancer possible, which means she has denied herself the possibility of a normal social life, much less allowed herself to adequately explore her sexuality. As a result of all this repression, she finds herself having paranoid hallucinating, which include frightening apparitions and visions of herself turning into the black swan.

Overall, the acting is nearly perfect. Natalie Portman successfully navigates the difficult role of playing the nice girl whose gentle facade hides a raging monstor. Mila Kunis essays a role that is well within her range. As the sexual predator Mr. Leroy, Vincent Cassel gives off the just the right amount of creepiness without going overboard.

I did have some minor grips about Arronofsky's direction. Early on, I found the use of hand held camera shots to be distracting. Also, I felt there were times when Nina turning into the black swan that were too overdone. Like I said, this falls into the minor gripe category, but there were times when I felt Arronofsky was beating the audience over the head with a drumstick when a more feather-light touch might have been more effective.

However, for those who care about quality films that offer up deeper thematic content, Black Swan is not one to be missed.

This is no ugly duckling. Swim across any lake in your way in order to see it.

The Rating
***1/2 out of ****


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