Monday, January 17, 2011
Black Swan is one of those movies that makes me redefine what horror means.
The movie was the cover story on Fangoria last month, which sorta shocked me. At the time I didn't really know anything about the movie aside from the fact that it was shot in New York City's Lincoln Center, where my ex-girlfriend works for the ballet company as a stitcher in their costume department. She mentioned that Natalie Portman was seen around the place and that she was dating one of the dance instructors.
I hadn't thought much about the film until I picked up the Fangoria issue and saw a stark image of Natalie Portman with beautiful black make-up and demonic red eyes, staring back at us with an alien, predatory gaze. It's a chilling and evocative image, but I still wasn't sold. I'm not the biggest Darren Aronofsky fan in the world and watching a movie about a ballerina freaking out didn't really appeal to me.
I was wrong.
Black Swan tells the story of Nina Sayers, a young ballerina who wins the roles of both the black and the white swan in an upcoming production of Swan Lake. While she has the innocence and vulnerability necessary to portray the black swan, her repressed sexuality and emotional disconnect keep her from the more seductive and dangerous role of the black swan. The stress of the role, the pressure of her unhinged has-been-never-was ballerina mother, and the sexual aggression of the ballet director and the hungry young rival all push against the walls of her sanity until she slips into madness.
Talking about this movie is a little bit intimidating. This film is going to be dissected by keener minds than my own, who will fill page after page with nuanced discussion on Sayers' degenerating emotional state. Alls I can do is to simply point out that Black Swan really is a horror film. I have no doubt that there are people who will rail against the categorization and say that Aronofsky is trying to do something more serious than make a simple genre romp, but I would argue that the movie hits too many of the same notes and has too many of the tropes not to fit into horror's big red circus tent. Sure, it's not a mindless slasher film or a bloody zombie gore fest, but Black Swan is one of the most genuinely chilling movies I've seen in a long time.
I started this review writing about how Black Swan made me think about what the genre means. Horror is a maddeningly catch-all term, but the genre has allowed itself to be ghettoized by having a very specific formulas and marketing styles. If a movie has "bloody" or "death" or "The [noun]ening" in the title and the text is in some drippy blood-red font, you can probably guess you're watching a horror flick. They're aimed at kids, they're out to show some boobs n' blood, and they're not trying to do anything too complex or convoluted. Some are about jump scares, some are about atmosphere, and some are just about watching someone else scream as they're being mangled to death. The nicest thing you can say about most of the genre is that it's not trying too hard. Most of the time that means you can enjoy some brainless, tasteless fun, but that also limits the amount of people who will take horror seriously as an art form.
The movie features many of the classic tropes of horror film making. There are jump scares and character screaming in darkness and horrific violence and bodily mutilation and terrible things lurking out of the corner of your eye. In fact, most of the movie looks and feels like a Japanese horror film, only with ballerinas instead of yurei creeping around the claustrophobic corridors of NYC. There's also a heaping helping of self-destructive madness. I've also seen a lot of on-screen carnage in my time, but when Nina tears at the skin of her fingers I found myself looking away.
Black Swan is ultimately about the fear of madness, the fear of sexuality, and the odd mixture of fear and delight of having our boundaries tested. It's not a happy film and it doesn't end in a happy place (or maybe it does, depending on your outlook) but it's a relentless exploration of one girl's degeneration on her way to ascendancy. Aronofsy used a lot of tools from horror's toolbox and crafted something unique out of it.
Psychological horror isn't anything new, nor are stories about sexually repressed people falling into madness. There are aspects of this film that feel similar to Roman Polanski's Repulsion. If I wanted to be really flip, I'd say there are elements of the story that feel like Psycho if Norman Bates' mother has still been alive. I get accused by friends of wanting to slap too many things with the horror label, but I feel that there are many different aspects of scary storytelling, just as there are many different types of humor. Horror doesn't have to be slashers and drippy monsters. Black Swan is a wonderfully effective psychological horror film and that label shouldn't be an insult to the film or the seriousness of its intent.