The Corporeal Anxiety of Watching ‘Black Swan’ for the First Time
I know I’m late to the Black Swan party. Like, a decade late.
But last night, after work, I transitioned from my desk to my bed and put the Natalie Portman psychological thriller on my laptop and got involved.
I think that ‘getting involved’ is an understated way to describe my viewing experience. Rather, it was more like Natalie Portman’s black swan shot out from my laptop, grabbed me by the back of my neck, and stretched my eyelids open, forcing me to absorb every ounce of delightfully monstrous material.
Either way, as a 20-something navigating my career and life with anxiety and impostor syndrome constantly nipping at my heels and clouding my brain, I couldn’t help but connect immediately with Portman’s Nina. A ballet star nearing the end of her prime (or so the industry decrees), Portman gives Nina a paralyzing mix of emotion; she’s aware of her exceptional talent yet simultaneously self-sabotaging at every turn. Roiling in the depths of her consciousness is an undercurrent of dissonance: is what she wants even what she really wants? Or is it what the predatory agents of chaos in her life, her mother and the ballet artistic director, and the devastating pressures of ballet’s vicious world, really want? Speaking of agency, the film strips Nina of it completely in most scenes; she’s less like a swan and more like a seagull in a raging tempest.
I drew parallels all film long between Nina and my own inner saboteurs. Whether it’s my anxiety or impostor syndrome talking, how many times have I blockaded my own path? Even when, or perhaps especially when, I know I am capable of achieving something that I want? Despite Nina clearly wanting to be cast in the role of the black swan, which she ends up getting, her commitment to perfection is wrecking her soul. Every scene gave me chills.
Thomas, the ballet director, is as much the manipulative male authority figure weasel as he is an embodiment of the psyche of anyone in a creative field. “You are always trying to be perfect,” he tells Nina mid-rehearsal. “Why don’t you let go, like Lily?” We often are trying our best; when a profession is in a creative industry, though, the standards of excellence are often decided by gatekeepers like Thomas, or determined by otherwise arbitrary markers of success. Suddenly, success is a disarmingly elusive reward for an immense undertaking of pain and sacrifice.
Thomas is the kind of director who picks women for titular roles in shows based on whether he’s attracted to them, and more insidiously, whether he thinks he can successfully groom them to be his “little princess.” Vincent Cassel’s Thomas was disgusting and loathsome, as was Nina’s mother, played by Barbara Hershey. Did Patricia Arquette take notes from Hershey’s manic, controlling performance as a mother living vicariously through her daughter? She must’ve; even the look is similar between Hershey and Arquette’s portayal of Gypsy Rose’s mother in The Act.
I was blown away by the fascinating visual and sound editing in this film. I’m sure the final sequence, wherein Nina physically molts into a black swan, as well as the countless instances where she sees her inner saboteur in the mirror, on the train, or in Mila Kunis’s devilish Lily, have gotten their roses. Those moments were unforgettable. But what I was most drawn to was the corporeally sickening moments that outlined how far dancers like Nina push their bodies.
I found myself enthralled by the sound of bone and sinew creaking when Nina would do pointe work, bearing her weight and movements on her toes. The thought of it makes my hands sweat as I type this, but the delivery of that sound and the close-up shots of her feet beckoned me to consider the physical stresses of this line of work, much like the very specific kind of bodily breaking and molding that goes into being an elite gymnast. The visuals and sound work pertaining to the scratches on Nina’s back, and the bloodying of her cuticles, were yet another way to viscerally portray to the viewer the near-cannibalistic manifestations of anxiety.
Lastly, the final moments of the movie are divine. I find myself easily distracted when watching movies, especially from my laptop at home; the final 15–20 minutes had me pinned down, though, as I watched the plot crescendo and swell into its queasy conclusion. Black Swan is a modern classic, a harrowing tale about the way we end up killing ourselves for the spotlight, the stench of the male gaze and manipulation and the endless potential for us to discover darker truths about ourselves at any point in life.
I’m still pondering whether Lily actually existed; not that I’m sold on the theory that Nina was schizophrenic, but I’d like to think that Lily was a device used to suggest that Nina was far more than a pawn in her own life, without conviction or any ability to self-advocate. She had all the characteristics of the black swan the whole time, whether she was even aware of it or not. Mila Kunis, too, is applaudingly dooming in her performance.
Black Swan invites us to consider taboos further than just “women masturbating.” For Nina, taboos like self-harm and exploring her inner cruelty paved the foundation for her escapist narrative, if only to escape from herself. Though it led to her ultimate downfall, being evil felt like the closest we got to seeing Nina at her most free; Portman was spellbinding and horrific.