The Reel Deal
A Reel Deal Film Review
Film Insight by Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5
“I CAN SEE RUSSIA FROM MY CINEMA”
When in the 2008 Presidential Election Sarah Palin famously said “I can see Russia from my house,” she was laughed at, and rightly so. But little did we know if she’d only waited two years she’d have been able to see Russia from her cinema. Director Darren Aronofsky’s new film Black Swan–equal parts coming-of-age story, sexual fantasia, laugh-out-loud comedy, scary thriller, intense character-study and compelling psychodrama–seems to me to be Russian through and through. It also happens to be the best film I’ve seen so far in 2010 (and there’s not too much time left for another film to steal its crown).
Let me make this clear though: The film is not a Russian production, nor does it take place in Russia. Darren Aronofsky may be of Russian descent, but he is not a Russian director, he is an American. Likewise, Natalie Portman apparently descended from Russian immigrants to Israel on her mother’s side, but she is Israeli-American, not Russian by any stretch of the imagination. Mila Kunis, who was admittedly born in Russia, isn’t at all what lends the picture its Russianness. And though Swan Lake, the Tchaikovsky ballet which plays an important role in the film and on which the story is also somewhat based, is Russian, that’s not why I call the film Russian either. Black Swan is Russian in the way Fyodor Dostoevsky is Russian, in the way Nikolai Gogol is Russian. It wasn’t just their blood and their ancestry that made those writers Russian, it was their sensibilities. This film has an unmistakeably Russian sensibility. Let’s call it: Dostoevsky at the ballet.
The film fixates on issues that may not be solely Russian preoccupations, but which have nonetheless defined the work of the great Russian writers of the last 150 years. It delves into things that Gogol and Dostoevsky were continually exploring: obsession, metamorphosis, madness, destruction, doubles–especially doubles. Supposedly, though not surprisingly, the film began with Aronofsky’s fascination with Dostoevsky’s novel The Double. In an interview, Aronofsky said that he had wanted to do something with The Double but it wasn’t until he saw Swan Lake at the ballet that he had his “eureka moment.” He explains that seeing Swan Lake enabled such a moment because “it was The Double in the ballet world. I was like, ‘Ok, I’ve got something.’” It’s as if in that early gestation period Aronofsky asked himself: “What if that classic ballet film The Red Shoes had been an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel?”
As Natalie Portman pirouettes, the camera dances around her; and as she careens off the edge, the camera jolts us along. We follow her character Nina Sayers in her descent (or is it her ascent?). We are with her in her destruction (or is it her creation?). While she is confused, we are also confused. Like her we don’t quite know what is real and what isn’t. Lines are blurred. The film works with a number of binaries, and constantly flips them on their heads: white/black, good/evil, perfection/imperfection, sanity/insanity, reality/fantasy, clarity/confusion, change/stasis, etc. The doubling may start on the obvious level of plot, with Nina having many dopplegangers (the older ballerina whose place Nina took, Nina’s own understudy, her mother, the director of the ballet–not to mention the important dual selves within her), but the doubling is furthered through the film’s play with binaries on the thematic and structural levels.
Using the dual swans–the white and the black, which are played by one ballerina in Swan Lake–as the main trope illustrating the schism in Nina’s own self, Aronofsky explores issues of identity in much the same ways Dostoevsky and Gogol have before him: by letting a devious doppelganger seemingly run amok. Dostoevsky once wrote that all of Russian fiction “came out from under Gogol’s overcoat”–a reference to Gogol’s famous story The Overcoat which, along with some other Gogol stories, inspired Dostoevsky’s The Double, which in turn inspired Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Black Swan may very well be the first American film to emerge from under Gogol’s overcoat. This movie would make a GREAT Russian novel. And it did make a GREAT Russian film–which just so happens to not be technically Russian at all. Go figure, we double back on ourselves and find the film to be dualistic in yet another way: both Russian and not-Russian.
Black Swan is a film directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin. It stars Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder. A ballet dancer wins the lead in “Swan Lake” and is perfect for the role of the delicate White Swan – Princess Odette – but slowly loses her mind as she becomes more and more like Odile, the Black Swan.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Design by Marie Havens
Film Still from The Black Swan, Photography Courtesy of Fox Searchlight