February 6, 2011
Lessons from “Black Swan”
I saw “Black Swan,” Saturday night. As I left the theatre, I felt like throwing-up, and wondered, What would possess Darren Aronofsky to make this film!
It is the story of a ballerina, who loses her mind in her obsessive drive for perfection, a mother’s smothering love as she vicariously achieves her dreams through her daughter, a young life that is sacrificed for art, a fractured soul trapped between self-lust and self-hatred, and an unrealized sexuality seeking its way out. It may be morbidly intoxicating to some, but sickening to the rest of us. Sure the acting cannot be decried. Natalie Portman will undoubtedly take home the Oscar for Best Actress. The directing and cinematography are sublime. But art is not an excuse. And artists should take care that their work adds some good to the world. Black Swan does not!
Portman, as Nina, slides into paranoia and self-destruction, a descent brought about by her relationship with her mother and her home life. Her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) insists she’s a “sweet girl,” dresses and undresses her, keeps her room filled with stuffed toys, and is constantly calling her cell. As she lives up to the image dictated by her mother, Nina never knows the dark side of herself. That is, until it forces its way out.
Mila Kunis, as Lily, is magical and does bring some glimpse of “wholeness” to a cast of characters who are all, in their own way, twisted or lost. Unlike Nina, Lily seems to know all sides of herself, and depicts an inner freedom that is the antidote to Nina’s suffering. But with Portman in almost every frame, there is simply too little of Lily, and too much of Nina.
Frenchman Vincent Cassel plays Thomas. He is your classic, arrogant ballet director, who uses his leading dancers and then tosses them out. All is in service of art, nothing is off limits - not their sexuality or their lives.
Film-making is perhaps the leading art-form of today’s world and is the means by which our culture reflects on itself. So what are we saying with this particular piece of work? That we are highly self-indulgent, willing to satisfy our creative and carnal whims at the expense of our higher sensibilities? The viewing audience is left to wonder, What was the purpose of this movie?
Still there are lessons to be learnt from “Black Swan”:
1. Wholeness, not perfection, is the route to success. Mistakes, miss-steps, and messing-up are a crucial part of the journey and must be embraced. Lily is an example of a more whole and balanced person, she knows her sexuality, her dark side and is willing to be passionate and to lose herself in her dancing.
2. Parents beware! Give your kids the space to be themselves. Nina’s obsessive and self-destructive need for perfection and success is not just her own. It has been augmented geometrically by her mother, who fulfills her own repressed need for validation in Nina’s victories on the dance floor. Nina’s life may have played out very differently if her mother had chosen to live a more complete life, and had found some satisfaction of her own.