Black Swan has been following me around for days. It’s certainly not a case of subtle plot-craft or deft acting–I’m not even sure Natalie Portman deserves her Oscar. The movie is melodramatic, the emotions ridiculously overwrought. I completely understand why my dancer friends hated it for capitalizing on the cliches of pressure and corruption in the professional arts scene, the neurotic prima donna heading for her inevitable implosion.
Thanks to the visual and sound effects, though, I had the delighted impression I was watching a much older story coming to life. It’s the Greek tragedy components that transported me and that keep me flashing back to those images of goosefleshed shoulder-blades and webbed toes.
Metamorphosis is a staple in the old stories. Swans figure heavily, both in divine infliction (Zeus raping Leda) and divine deliverance (King Cyncnus transformed through grief). The phrase “swan song” comes from the myth (also Greek) wherein swans were said to emit at death the most beautiful birdsong in the world.
What Black Swan does, besides invoking the old stories in all their creepy relevance, is address the transformation of the artist in the process of creation. Nina (Portman) is told that technical brilliance won’t cut it; she must lose herself in the role, channel her darkest self as well as her innocence and good intentions to fully embody the Swan Queen.
This sounds right to me, as a writer. Even if you’re not writing melodrama, you need that murderous passion–you need to hurl yourself, body and soul, onto the page, if your writing is to be vivid and courageous.
I don’t believe artists have to self-destruct in order to achieve this passion, though. In fact, I’d like to think that Nina pulled herself together after her swan-song performance, that the discovery of her inner black bird allowed her to integrate the parts of her life that were scaring her silly.
I know, I know. That’s me arriving at a happy ending where none is indicated on the film’s road map. But I had another recent experience to leaven the Gothic stakes of Nina’s moment in the spotlight. Shortly before seeing Black Swan, I took a tour of the National Ballet and witnessed the massive, real-life, collective effort that goes into a single performance, including this gem from the costume department:
Tutu bits. That’s what it all comes down to, doesn’t it? And I’m not just talking about ballet.