Celebrating Cinema

Celebrating Cinema

Monday, August 1, 2011

An Education (2009)

by Lone Scherfig

An Analysis

Rain-soaked Jenny with Cello
Sixteen-years-old Jenny Miller  (Oscar-nominated Carey Mulligan), caught with her cello in a rainstorm, accepts a ride home from a charming stranger, David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), in his hand-built, late-1950s Bristol 405 luxury sedan--an encounter that begins a careful, slow-cooking romance that would make a crock pot proud.  Set in boring early-1960s suburban London, Jenny's aspirations, imbued with a precocious, refined cultural literacy, are already at odds with her father's (Alfred Molina) vague yet specific ideas of how his daughter should set about getting into Oxford, a feat that eluded him by a safe margin.  An Education is Jenny's journey to find the proper place for her newfound self amongst her family's, friends', and mentors' ideas of where and who she should be.  


Please see the film before reading further

Jenny and David's First Date
David seduces Jenny with both, sincerity, and the accouterments of a wealthy, handsome, 30-something man. David beguiles Jenny's parents, who are accustomed to intimidating Jenny's inexperienced suitors, slathering promises they come to believe as the better life for their daughter. Escalating outings to first a classical music concert and  upscale jazz club (dinner with Aunt Helen, as far as her parents know), a trip to Oxford University (they see only Oxford the town, bringing back a forged C.S. Lewis-signed book as evidence to a university visit), then her dream 17th birthday celebration in Paris.

Jenny, Now a Woman
As their relationship progresses, Jenny's dress and hair become refined and upswept, respectively, revealing her slender body and neck reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly. Returned to the reality of school and home, her dress reverts to thick, earth-toned fabrics and school uniforms, with her long hair hanging straight down, bangs nearly hiding her eyes. Though a seemingly banal choice for Lone Scherfig, the motif distinction reminds us she is living two very different worlds. Though, would it not have been better for Jenny's at-home appearance to reflect her relationship's increasing seriousness?

(L to R) Danny, Helen, David, Jenny
On their first date, Jenny meets David's friends:  his business partner Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny's chic girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike). Though Jenny takes immediately to the music venues and to the two men, her parallel, and possible future self, Helen, is a happy, incurious mannequin.  As staying with David comes to mean abandoning university training, is Jenny destined to become another Helen, or will she be different?

Paris--The Film's Look Changes
Once the couple reaches Paris, director Lone Scherfig delivers a sun-drenched color palette, showing the wonder and brilliance of Jenny's mood. In a short Paris-spanning montage, Scherfig gives us nouvelle vague Godardian jump-cuts, telling us Jenny is bathing in all the culture Paris offers a thirsty Paris virgin:  books, film, romance...  Paris is everything she imagined it would be!  Jenny's joy reminds us of when her father chastised her for listening to French songs because "French singing wasn't on the syllabus last time I looked!" She has escaped her dreary upbringing, and David soon asks for her hand in marriage, in a dog track parking lot, sans ring. Something is amiss--David's usual debonair manner is betrayed by his unforgivably immature action.

Jenny unknowingly insults David
Other earlier, small elements of David's behaviour would have tripped alarm bells in most women, but not in a girl. David announces their pet nicknames, something that normally happens a bit more naturally. David presents banana-as-sex-toy. His source of income is sleazy at best, and hints at illegality. Since Jenny is in every scene, we do not expect to see David home alone, but we also never see Jenny at his home. Lynn Barber, the real-life Jenny and author of the book An Education, never knew where he lived, nor had his phone number, and never seemed much interested. Though too common for alarm bells, David seems most comfortable plying his apparent lack of sexual stamina on the ignorant.

English Teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams)
Jenny's support network is insufficient to protect her from the pitfalls of her May-December romance. Her parents' malleable principles, her friends' swooning over her travels, and her teacher's and headmistress's inabilities to communicate properly their concerns, leave Jenny to find her way alone, without third-party advice. She shuns them all, choosing a life with David, but not before delivering fair challenges to her teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson, whose three brief scenes nearly steal the movie). All that clever and pretty Miss Stubbs has won with her education was a plowing through of illiterate essays on ponies.  The headmistress fairs no better, seeing Jenny's degree-holding future as either a high school teacher or civil servant. Her arguments unchallenged, Jenny quits school and chooses David's excitement.

Scherfig's camera work, wardrobe, and set dressers create an attractive film that very subtly assists in telling the story and its mood--and we want to visit it! Jenny, fuming over David and Danny's theft of an antique map, and having endured the getaway, exits the car at their Oxford hotel, walks away from the hotel with great purpose. She is leaving David. The camera follows David's on-foot pursuit of her.  Scherfig chooses to use a handheld camera for the first time. As Jenny's confidence in David has been shaken, so too does the camera shake--a subtle, mood-enhancing effect. By then, Scherfig has placed David and Helen on the hotel suite's balcony, champagne fluted and flowing. The camera shows them looking down at mended couple, then cuts to Jenny's point-of-view:  Jenny looking up to them, returning to the literally lofty life of David & Co.

Scherfig frequently uses zoom lenses, showing the audience on whom we should be focused at any one moment in a scene. I do wish she had chosen greater depth of field, trusting our judgement to select whom to watch when.  Zooming lenses usually distract and distort.

Nick Hornby's (About a Boy (2002), High Fidelity (2000)) script is crisp, sensitive, and efficient. The arc and pacing of the film, including the arcs within scenes, are masterful. Hornby gives us beautiful conversations, sharp repartee, well-timed humour, and memorable lines from numerous characters.  Scherfig gives us telling scene transitions early.  After David first gives Jenny a ride through a downpour, then, having spent mere seconds with David, Jenny exits the car at her home--the rain has stopped. Their meeting has given Jenny hope, clearing away the gloom of her life. As she exits the car, Juliette Gréco's (French) music plays, making us hear Jenny's passion and hopes. Scherfig keeps the musical track while cutting to Jenny listening to the music on a record player. Interrupted by her father who wants to hear the sound of sweat hitting the pages of books, he insists she return to her studies.  Cut to a family dinner scene with a nervous suitor her age, Graham (Matthew Beard), and then cut to Jenny discovering a sophisticated flower bouquet on her doorstep. Very quickly Hornby and Scherfig have introduced David to Jenny, have shown us that David is Jenny's sunshine, that her father stifles, that boys her age are insufficient, and that Jenny likes how David woos her with beautiful, fancy things. She is enamored, and we understand why.

The Sun, Setting on Paris

An Education's denouement left me a bit disappointed.  Jenny, having lost a year in school, returns, passes her exams, and, once enrolled at Oxford, dates boys her age. One boy suggests they someday go to Paris. She responds in narration, "I said I'd always wanted to see Paris.  (I said it) As if I'd never been!" One's interpretation of the last line determines if this is a really good film or a great film.  

After having made such a fuss about lacking wisdom, Jenny seems to pretend that David never happened. Though she seems to have learned and healed, she also somehow seems to ignore her history, an approach that will fail to summon wisdom.

Many classic films have longstanding cachet because they end uniquely and fittingly. Though Lone Scherfig crafts a brilliant film for the first ninety minutes or so, the last ten may doom it to historical irrelevance, a shame for such an otherwise exceptional movie. 

An Education (trailer)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Just Like Home (Hjemve) (2007)

by Lone Scherfig

An Analysis

Erling and His Sister
Just Like Home is that safe place most everyone knew as a child, and to which adults occasionally need to return. Individual crisis drives the ensemble cast of characters in a very small Danish town where everyone "supports each other, and helps each other." Centered around an under-reconstruction town square and a witch hunt for a man rumored to have run about town naked one night, Just Like Home uses these mostly as backdrop to uninteresting romantic pairings. We meet five primary male characters: Lindy Steen, the by-default town artist who garners undeserved respect from the townspeople; Jens Peter (Lars Kaalund), pharmacist; Erling, a man dealing with difficult parent memories as well as a sister who falsely believes she is dying, seeks illicit drug services of Jens Peter to manage his mood; Jesper, the third-generation owner of "Your Dressman" clothing shop; and Bo, the leader of on-strike town square construction workers. We also get to know Margrethe Nielson (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), a recent escapee from the possessive, virginal religious cult Pure Path; Myrtle (Bodil Jørgensen), a marginalized social worker and pipe-carving hobbyist; Ulla (Mia Lyhne), the business-smart employee of the "Your Dressman" clothing shop; Mette-Inge (Pernille Vallentin), an assistant to Jens Peter; and Erling's unnamed, hospitalized sister (Ida Dwinger). In response to the "beware of the naked man" scare, Jens-Peter and Jesper involve others to promote, staff, and tranform The Silent Ear from a counselling helpline into a streaker sightings hotline. Lone Scherfig's third film since her breakthrough Italian for Beginners (2000) is the weakest of the three, but still worthy of a look.


Please see the film before reading further

O Captain! my Captain!
If the small Danish town setting and the ensemble cast that couples off were not enough to remind us of Italian for Beginners, the repeat casting of Lars Kaalund and Ann Eleonora Jørgensen does. (Each is actually in his/her third Scherfig film--Når mor kommer hjem (1998), their first, unavailable in the U.S.) Unlike Italian for Beginners, Just Like Home does not conform to Dogme 95, lacks compelling drama and twists, and has us mostly disinterested in the interpersonal romantic relationships. It also has no deeper purpose than its emotionless, poster-spoiled, faint shadow of the iconic "I Am Spartacus" / "O Captain! my Captain!" moments of male solidarity. A director should not shy from shooting scenes similar to the iconic cinema, thereby creating wet noodle cinema. She should create, or at minimum to attempt to create, an impressive and new mise-en-scène that imparts audience-wide cinematic amnesia regarding the classic scenes. Above all, make us care about it!

Jesper, Jens Peter, at The Silent Ear
Several story lines go nowhere. While the residents make impressive attempts to build community solidarity via meetings, union strikes, and brainstorming sessions, as the Silent Ear transforms into a streaker sighting hotline, it starts to mirror the nasty call-in show from Bryan Singer's Public Access (1993), where townsfolk tattled on each other. But Silent Ear, lacking a village-wide audience, holds little potential for public strife. 

Bo, Ulla
Let it suffice to say we didn't care about the union strike or the square's reconstruction. We never see the square before reconstruction, so the audience is missing nothing. Meanwhile the construction zone seems to inconvenience neither traffic nor commerce.

While we care marginally that Your Dressman is going bankrupt, the resolution to the problem has no suspense. Once resolved, the shop and its former and latter owners, as owners, are never revisited. 

Margrethe, Erling
The most interesting character development potential was in Margrethe, the refugee from life-long Jesus Camp. Scherfig's treatment of Margrethe's Jesus Police minders was more interesting that her treatment of Margrethe, culminating in Jesus Police Office Vicky, while her male cult cop partner leads her away, cranes her neck back over her shoulder to leer at the scores of naked men as long as possible. It is the film's best laugh. Then again, Just Like Home has more primary characters than laughs.

All of these plot lines ultimately mean nothing, go nowhere, and have no denouement. They are used solely as plot devices to move individual characters toward coupling. How sad that, like in Italian for Beginners, the couplings again make little sense, and sadder still that we care less for Just Like Home's characters than we did for Beginners'

Though Just Like Home is the laggard in her offspring of films, it is after all worthy of a look. It is available with subtitles on Netflix streaming.

Since Just Like Home

Scherfig was fortunate to jump from this mediocre film into the brilliantly crafted, Oscar-nominated An Education (2009). Many filmmakers do not get such breaks. Let us hope Scherfig's upcoming One Day (2011) does not falter as Just Like Home did. She has a bit more safety net now, but that's no reason to use it. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002)

by Lone Scherfig

An Analysis

Harbour (Adrian Rawling) cares for his younger brother Wilbur (Jamie Sives) who becomes more embarrassed each time a suicide attempt fails. The brothers inherit their father's used book shop in Scotland, and plan to close it, until Alice (Shirley Henderson) arrives to sell some books and, with her daughter Mary (Lisa McKinlay), changes their lives. Lone Scherfig's first film since Italian for Beginners (2000) breaks from her Dogme 95 style and delivers a surprising and satisfying film.


Please see the film before reading further

Lone Scherfig
While Scherfig leaves behind Dogme 95's principles, she does retain a few elements from it and from Italian for Beginners. We can feel that she has returned her director of photography Jørgen Johansson from Italian for Beginners, as he creates shots unafraid to show us the backs of principal actors. In one of the film's two most pivotal scenes, when incompetent nurse Moira (Julia Davis) spills the beans on Harbour's medical condition, that moment's music/sound effects were provided in-scene by young Mary making her crystal glass sing a soft, discordant shriek. Last, Scherfig uses death as a distraction from the film's story twist. Like in Beginners, when everyone and her mother seemed to be dying, Scherfig uses Wilbur's suicide attempts to distract us from the eventual story--by film's end, none thought Wilbur would check out early.

Nurse Moira
Kind nurse Moira, who arrives with a different hair style every day (including crimping!), is a bit unbelievable as a proper nurse. Her professional boundaries with her group counseling clients are easily and often crossed, she extols the virtues of "alternative medicine" (lamenting its title for all the wrong reasons), and she willingly gives up confidential client information. Her unveiling of Harbour's condition is one of the film's two biggest plots turns. The rest of her character make-up allows for this misstep to happen, but I wonder what alternatives Ms. Scherfig contemplated in trying to figure out how to unveil Harbour's condition.

Harbour and Alice
Harbour is a kind man who takes Wilbur's woman-wooing advice to land Alice. Harbour, in his kind goodness, could be prematurely dismissed as uninteresting, or unimportant to the film. Harbour's reaction to learning from innocent Mary that Alice is sleeping with Wilbur is the unique, emotional scene of the film. We have all seen the "when I die, take care of my wife" scene before, but Harbour's subsequent kind, low-key, indirect, sincere scenes with Alice and then with Wilbur, allow him to say goodbye, and that he is okay with them being together, all without ever making either feel defensive or anxious.  This is the brilliant scene that makes Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself.

Alice, incompetent as a janitor, finds success in greater challenges, such as running a bookstore. But for saving Wilbur, she remains emotionally understated. Harbour's attraction to her, other than her pretty-side-of-plain looks, seems to be rooted in having been able to land her. Wilbur's attraction to her is even less apparent.  

Finally, Wilbur. Wilbur does not understand how to be nice, even though he is mostly well-meaning (his mentoring of grade school children, for instance). He lived in the shadow of Harbour for decades, even though dad loved Wilbur more. Wilbur wants to literally kill himself only during the film's first half, which grows into a figurative wanting-to-kill-himself when he imagines that Alice, upon Harbour's imminent Christmas visit, might sleep again with her husband. As Harbour's last conversation with Wilbur unfolds, and the film concludes, we worry not one wit about Wilbur's mental state.  Harbour's death has allowed Wilbur to flourish, though he never wanted it that way.

trailer,Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Italian for Beginners (2000)

by Lone Scherfig

An Analysis

Italian for Beginners, the earliest U.S.-available feature film from Danish director/writer Lone Scherfig, is an endearing ensemble piece following the lives of six villagers in Denmark, most of whom enroll in an Italian language class. While Scherfig follows the avant-garde Dogme 95 manifesto's ten rules for stripped-down film-making, her audience soon ceases thinking of Italian for Beginners as an experimental film and becomes immersed in the film, caring for its characters.

Interim Danish-Lutheran pastor Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen) has arrived in town to spell Pastor Wredmann (Bent Mejding), a man prone to throwing organists from balconies. Four months removed from his wife's death, soft-spoken Andreas drives an unseen-to-the-audience Mazerati to compensate. Aside from a possible life insurance payout, Andreas' source of wealth, like the car, remains concealed.  

In the town Andreas meets, Helvfin (Lars Kaalund), the hotel's loud-mouthed, misanthropic restaurant manager--a sort of humorless Basil Fawlty; Helvfin's loyal friend Jørgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), a woman-shy hotel clerk; Olympia (Anette Støvelbæk), a helplessly clumsy donut shop clerk who lives with and cares for her elderly father Leif; Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), an Italian immigrant waitress at Helvfin's hotel restaurant; and a sensuous hairdresser (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen)who cares for her ill mother.

Before pursuing this analysis, we must be familiar with the ten principles of Dogme 95 Manifesto as well as its coda:
  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in.
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the image or vice-versa.
  3. The camera must be handheld. Any movement or mobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable.
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action.
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden.
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.
Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste. I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a 'work', as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.

One's initial reaction might be "what a load of pretentious crap!" Italian for Beginners, the twelfth Dogme 95 film and the first from a woman, is here to surprise the skeptical.


Please see the film before reading further

Jorgen (left) with Andreas 
The film can be divided into two halves. Showing or telling of half a dozen deaths, surprising perhaps for a movement whose superficial action clause disallows most if not all portrayals of murder, the first half is about introducing characters to each other and setting up the unexpected plot twist.  Due to the number of deaths, many viewers will not predict the coming twist, normally so common, predictable, and unsatisfying: that Karen/Carmen (the hairdresser) and Olympia are sisters. Prior to that, we think maybe this film will be about the challenges facing pastor Andreas in counseling the loved ones of the deceased.  

Karen and Helvfin
After the plot twist, ~40 minutes of film remains. Unlike the later The Other Man (2008), filming a plot twist was not the sole purpose of Italian for Beginners. The characters grow closer. Relationships are built, wrecked, and reformed. Curiously, the romantic relationships do not make a lick of sense. Helvfin grievously insults Karen's sister and then her mother. Karen ignores the first insult and rewards him with desktop classroom sex. For the second offense he is punished, but not for long, and is soon rewarded with Venetian alley sex. Andreas, a sweet man, slowly pursues the clumsy and well-meaning Olympia, whose penmanship rivals the finest kindergartner. Last, the 40-something, boring, and kind Jorgen, who speaks limited Italian, successfully proposes to the gorgeous, 20-something, Roman Catholic Italian Giulia who understands but speaks limited Danish. Giulia, possibly because of her language barrier, or possibly because the filmmaker saw her as "the immigrant woman" is by far the least developed of the six main characters.  None of these couples ought to be together, particularly Helvfin and Karen, but with death swirling about, they need each other. We as viewers do not much care that the couples don't seem to fit. The sweet emotions that Italian for Beginners elicits overrides most logical objections to the odd couplings.

Karen and Helvfin open a rollaway mattress
Using each setting as-is (as Dogme 95 requires), with its on-site props, lends this film healthy tones of verisimilitude. When Karen is tossed about on the precarious classroom desk, we understand how real that moment feels. When we see an actual, working bakery with all its accouterments, stains, and evidence of use, we notice that realism arrives more effectively only with a documentary film that uses real employees instead of actors. When Karen and Helvfin open a rollaway mattress in said Venetian alleyway, we smile with satisfaction, knowing that bed was found there when cast and crew arrived.

Aside from the Dogme 95 requirements of a 35mm color film handheld camera, the director does have the freedom of lens type (zoom, fixed, wide-angle, fisheye, etc.) In the spirit of Dogme 95, Scherfig eschews anything but a fixed, typical lens or lenses--anything that would add a drop of "artistry." Once arriving in Venice, Scherfig seems to cautiously select properly-lit, cinema-friendly settings, including the lovely restaurant dining room which has a handsome look and remarkably acceptable ambient sound. Scherfig seems to wait for the most attractive levels of sunlight to film certain exterior scenes, especially a pre-dinner twilight scene that glows indigo. 

Scherfig bends the spirit of the rules for setting. She amuses us by using classroom doors that, in the real world, almost certainly lead to closets, but, within the film, serve as classroom entrances.  

Scherfig, comforming to self-imposed Dogme 95 creative limitations, is still an artist--one who has crafted a lovely, touching film.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Lone Scherfig

Celebrating Cinema will next examine the work of Danish film director Lone Scherfig, a prominent member of Denmark's Dogme 95 movement.

Lone Scherfig

Celebrating Cinema will present writings on the following available films:

Her latest film, One Day (2011), is due for its American release August 19, 2011. For purposes of auteur context, Celebrating Cinema recommends seeing her previous films before seeing One Day. Of course, please do not let a lack of exposure to Scherfig's catalog prevent you seeing One Day.

U.S. trailer for One Day

Monday, June 27, 2011

Black Swan (2010)

by Darren Aronofsky

An Analysis

"I had the craziest dream last night." Black Swan expresses and examines the physical, psychological, familial, and sexual pressures on a ballerina, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who has been chosen as a prestigious New York City ballet company's featured performer in this season's re-imagined production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. To become the Swan Queen, Nina must exude the delicate purity of the White Swan then ascend as the Black Swan by corralling and evincing her dormant aggression and libido. In his fifth film, Darren Aronofsky's directs his second consecutive Best Acting nominated performance (Natalie Portman, Mickey Rourke). Black Swan follows Aronofsky's Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), and The Wrestler (2008).


Please see the film before reading further


Clint Mansell
Aronofsky welcomes several of his regulars to his fifth film, including good luck charm, actor Mark Margolis (albeit as a scene-cut extra, he's in his 5th film with Aronofsky), director of photography Matthew Libatique (4th film), producer Scott Franklin (4th), actor Stanley Herman (3rd, who amusingly reprises his role as subway weirdo "Uncle Hank"), and parents Abraham and Charlotte Aronofsky (5th and 3rd, respectively).  Perhaps most important is Clint Mansell, who scores his fifth Aronofsky film. Though Mansell maintains some chords and progressions heard in Requiem, he re-writes Tchaikovsky in a new, dark mood.  

After a respite in The Wrestler, Aronofsky revisits his method of fusing real, in-film action with one character's fantasies, dreams, and paranoid delusions--in this film, they belong to Nina. Viewers cognizant of Pi will be prepared to handle another experiencing of this technique, and will be better able to perceive Nina's feelings and demons. None of his films are so terribly confusing as The Fountain, but newcomers to Aronofsky need a bit of prior warning or post-viewing guidance for Black Swan.

Requiem (above), Black Swan (below)
Though there is great stress between Nina and her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), Aronofsky chose not use the same techniques that portrayed the Requiem relationship between Sara and Harry. No split screens, and no 180-degree camera swings.   

Nina's grapefruit breakfast reminds us of Sara Goldfarb's eggs-and-grapefruit diet in Requiem. We know what price Sara paid for such food controls. The fall-out of Nina's stricter diet is tempered by Nina's greater purpose, physical activity, and a hope for something achievable and earned, as opposed to Sara's TV appearance wish, which can only be bestowed.

Aronofsky's camera techniques create much of the film's mood. Aronofsky rightly uses the camera to present a very unsettled, confidence-lacking, on-the-brink-of-breakdown, paranoid Nina. Aronofsky also uses a steadicam that revolves around Nina when dancing, creating a visual maelstrom. 

The Camera "Following" Nina
Aronofsky continues his "following" technique he developed in The Wrestler. As we experienced Ram's point of view, most interestingly navigating the backstage corridors of boisterous arenas, we get a remarkably similar experience with Nina's navigating Lincoln Center's cinder-block underbelly.

One of Aronofsky's smartest habits is teaching us about worlds unfamiliar to most of us. He has taken us behind the scenes of professional wrestling, shown us mathematics, and taught us specifics of heroin addiction. In Black Swan he shows us the the little things that all dancers know but the rest of us do not. For instance, he shows us three scenes of Nina preparing ballet shoes--the first a montage of breaking down, scoring, and re-sewing them, the second a scene of Nina and Erica scorching ballet shoe ribbons, and the third a shot of Nina grinding her ballet shoes into a sand/glass mixture. These little teaching moments make us feel a part of Nina's world, and help us connect to Nina.

Last Aronofsky returns to his fade-to-white technique used in Pi and Requiem. Upon Nina's ascendancy as the unfettered Black Swan, Aronofsky ends the film with a fade to white to indicate, not a blinded-by-the-sun moment, but a more transcendent, triumphant moment. She has overcome adversity and demons, and has unlocked long-repressed personal and sexual strengths. She, like the Swan Queen, may have also killed herself.

Nina's Adversity

Erica, Feeding Her Daughter Icing
From the film's beginning, Nina's timidity seems incongruent with both her talent and success. She has thrived as a delicate, waif-like ballerina whose skills and prominence are only surpassed by an about-to-be-retired 40-something, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder). Like Beth, Nina in her new, headlining role soon feels the All About Eve (1950) footsteps of her nearest challenger, Lily (Mila Kunis). Nina also faces the physical pain of being a featured ballerina:  bleeding feet, split toenails, joints relieved by the painful pulling of a physical therapist. Nina still lives with her controlling, daughter-focused, helicopter mother, Erica, an unaccomplished dancer who retired at 28 to birth and raise Nina. Erica now makes paintings of Nina, sleeps in a chair in Nina's room, runs Nina's schedule, calls Nina several times a day, and, perhaps most controlling, undresses Nina to her panties. Erica has kept Nina from having friends. Maddeningly, to celebrate Nina's landing of the Swan Queen role, Erica forces cake on Nina, something very much out of Nina's Erica-monitored nutrition regimen. Last, and perhaps most important, though Nina has landed the role, she fails to convince the director, and herself, of her ability to succeed in the Black Swan half of the role.

The story's construction provides much of the film's brilliance. Early, Nina's primary source of conflict is with her mother. Next we see her start down a path to loosen up, to become independent and an adult. Both conflicts obscure her underlying psychiatric disorder(s). The delay and ambiguity in revealing the disorder(s) probably creates a great deal of strife for viewers who are impatient, new to Aronofsky, or new to any sort of avant-garde cinema. I do not suggest that Aronofsky not stick to his creative guns. Films like this create the opportunity in new audiences for reflection, multiple viewings, and exploration into a director's catalog.   

We desperately want Nina to succeed, to break away from her mother, and to become a sexy, confident woman and dancer. Tragically they converge alongside her peaking psychosis.

Not being a mental health professional, nor a dancing expert, nor familiar with Swan Lake, I shall mostly leave alone those realms in this analysis.


Thomas and Nina
Thomas, the French director of Nina's ballet company, is a womanizing, smug, ass who produces great performances. A swan skeleton decorates his office while vaginally-themed art dominates his flat. When we first meet Thomas, he appears silently, standing in the rehearsal space's stadium seating. The dancers immediately disrobe, to a certain extent. We now know his power, and what he expects of dancers, both on and away from the dance floor. He quickly, though incredulously, pegs Nina as a virgin. Both Thomas and Lily, multiple times, tell Nina to loosen up. Thomas instructs Nina, "Go home and touch yourself." Nina allows herself such pleasure when she wakes in the morning in her bedroom, that is, until she notices her mother in the bedroom chair. When Nina eventually succeeds, Thomas transfers his paternalistic nickname for Beth onto Nina, "My Little Princess."

Nina's Hallucinations

Within the context of Black Swan, Nina's hallucinations demand attention and explanation. Two hallucinations deserve the most focus because they confuse, and because understanding them is essential to understanding reality within the film. When Nina and Lily are first introduced, Lily foreshadows, "Are you freaking out? I've been losing my mind."

Nina Hallucinating a Night with Lily
Nina's night out with Lily happened pretty much as shown... until, when Nina's is walking out of the club, Lily sticks her head out the exit door and calls after her. Lily calling after Nina outside the club is the first moment shown that night that never happened. The cab ride seduction never happened because Lily was never in the cab--it was Nina's fantasy. Lily spent that night with Tom, the dolt she met at the club; therefore, she could not have been in the cab. A second viewing of the club dancing scene shows not just Nina's physical comfort with Lily, but it also shows them eventually becoming virtually indistinguishable from one another on the dance floor, a bit of visual foreshadowing that helps us explain Nina's hallucination. Lily's actions in the apartment, particularly the mouthing of Nina's words as Nina speaks them (see Fight Club (1999)), reinforce that Lily was never inside the apartment. Through the hallucination, Nina progresses toward becoming more sexual and more independent, but, sadly, her psychosis is becoming more manifest.

Second is the broken mirror episode during the opening night performance. We see Nina attack Lily, stabbing her with a mirror shard. But, like all the previous times when Nina thought Lily was there yet saw a flash of herself (Nina's self) in Lily's place, we know that Lily once again is not really there. Nina of course has stabbed herself instead, and I believe it to be the work of her psychosis. 

Nina's Psychosis
There are other hallucinations one can misunderstand without compromising one's understanding of the film. Nina's cuticle mangling of course never happened--Aronofsky was kind enough to show us the reality, to let us in early on her penchant for hallucination. The woman who appears twice, once over Nina's bathtub and once in a corner of Nina's apartment... I have no idea who that is. My best guess is that she is Nina's mother, Erica, at the age when Erica retired to give birth to Nina. Nina seeing Lily and Thomas having sex off-stage was Nina's paranoid delusion. Nina's several mirror hallucinations suggests that Nina probably has some sort of dissociative or schizophrenic disorder. Last, and remarkably unimportant, is the final scene involving Beth and Nina. Though we see Beth self-mutilate, we also see Nina drop the bloody weapon as she flees into the hospital's elevator. It seems odd that Nina would not be tracked down by police before the end of the opening night performance, but I am willing to allow that such investigations take more time. More important, not only do I believe Nina stabbed Beth, it is also at this point in the film that I first suspected that Nina pushed Beth into traffic, causing her hospitalization in the first place. That last tantalizing question may be unanswerable, but it is worthy of a good smoke.   


Though not in the strict musical sense, Aronofsky's mise-en-scène uses leitmotifs of color to convey Nina's descent into psychosis, into sexuality, into the Black Swan. One is tempted to cry "cliché!" if not "racism!" with the white equals good, black equals bad formula, but Aronofsky can be excused easily, for the color palette set forth by Tchaikovsky's ballet is rather unavoidable. The embodiment of sexual confidence, Lily is always shown in black.  Nina is mostly in white or other light colors (including a very light-colored pink overcoat). Nina's first appearance in grey happens in Nina's first rehearsal in which she makes an attempt to liberate her sexuality, resulting in Thomas's funny in-joke, asking Natalie Portman's husband, "Would you fuck this girl?" 

Nina first dresses in black at the dance club, appropriately in a naughty little number supplied by Lily, which, along with similar hair, allows them to become indistinguishable on the dance floor. Indeed, during the club dancing scene we get a flash of Nina in her Black Swan makeup--her transformation has begun. Later, in the cab ride hallucination, we also notice Nina's black pants, perfect for her first sexual touching by someone else. We ultimately see her in her fully-clad black glory in opening night's second act as the Black Swan.

Lily, Hair Down
Hair also plays an important role in shaping our understanding of what Nina is feeling. We first notice a difference in hair when Nina sees Lily rehearsing with her hair down, something atypical among dancers thus far in the film. The night that Lily comes to take Nina out partying, we see Nina with her hair down already. She is ready to go. As mentioned above, the hair, along with the matching black outfits, allow Nina and Lily to become indistinguishable on the club's dance floor--Nina has absorbed Lily's level of sexuality. The symbolism of literally letting one's hair down may be too obvious, but it bloody works. Who among us was not immediately drawn to the hair-down dancing of Lily in that rehearsal?


Nina, Perfect
Nina's triumph is the peaking of her talent, her sexuality, and of her psychosis. Thomas asks as she lies bleeding, "What did you do?!" Nina responds, mostly to herself, "I felt it. I was perfect." I do not remember a film with so tragic a triumph. Even The Wrestler's Randy "The Ram" Robinson was tragic, but ended without triumph. Denouements with the simultaneous feelings of regret and success tend to be found in war movies. I welcome suggestions of films with similar endings.

Aronofsky continues to make challenging, brilliant films.  Here is to hoping his productivity moves toward Woody Allen's and away from Terrence Malick's (or at least the Malick of old), while continuing with the same level of innovation and creativity he has always given his grateful audiences.

Trailer to Black Swan (2010)