And by “we” I mean “me” because no one else at TheGloss has seen it yet. Which is fine, because I’m just going to divide myself into two people to discuss it. One is going to be Rational Jennifer and one is going to be Asshole Jennifer. Like in the movie. Also, I resent even having to tell you that there are going to be spoilers in this because it’s so obvious, but, there are are going to be tons of spoilers. Obviously.
Rational Jennifer: That was a great movie! Let’s make up awards so we can give Natalie Portman MORE awards.
Asshole Jennifer: Well, you always do like B-Movies, don’t you? I don’t know that this has anything on say, Teenage Zombies, but it was okay, I guess. There was blood everywhere. It was cool when she just started peeling back strips of her flesh like in Cabin Fever. That was gross. I like things that are gross.
Rational Jennifer: You are such an asshole. And you are wrong.
AJ: Fuck you. I wanted it to be more like The Wrestler. You know, someone struggling to make their way up, losing things along the way. I’m cool with the idea of Natalie Portman’s character losing her mind in pursuit of this incredibly difficult role, but she had lost her mind from the beginning.The first scene is pretty much her being insane. It didn’t feel like “oh, that poor girl lost her mind trying to make it” it felt like “well, look at this crazy girl being crazy.”
RJ: Yeah, that’s why she was great. She was entirely committed to her art. Her art was all she was.
AJ: That has nothing to do with the fact that she’s insane from the get-go.
RJ: There’s a great line in All About Eve, where dark wizard/drama critic Addison DeWitt bemoans the fact that magazines are always trying to show how normal stars are, and that they want to prove (as Us Weekly now literally does) that great stars are just like us. Addison points out that this is ludicrous because great stars are nothing like us. They live in a strange world where they exist first and foremost for their art. In The Black Swan I think you really see that. Nina’s madness wasn’t a case of “Oh, she got this ambitious role, it drove her insane.” She would never have gotten the role if she wasn’t insane to begin with.
AJ: But they almost gave the role to another girl. Nina only got it because she bit the director, and he thought that was cool. Dudes love it when you bite them!
RJ: What? No, they don’t. Who are you? Jesus. But I think it did go a long way in convincing him that she had the kind of batshit temperament that would make her great. Throughout the role, he keeps telling her to lose control. He clearly has no idea how out of control she really is, because she’s able to hold it together shockingly well in his presence. The director just expects insanity to manifest itself in a more obvious form. Because who is Nina replacing? Beth (excellently played by Winona Ryder). Beth is clearly stark, raving mad. And she is apparently a great star. And the moment Beth’s career is over, she responds by walking out into oncoming traffic. At the end of the movie, Nina goes to visit Beth in the hospital to tell her that she just wanted to be like her. Beth is in a wheelchair, her legs are scarred, she’s not going to dance again, and Nina imagines (we hope) Beth repeatedly stabbing herself in the face while screaming “I’m nothing! I’m nothing!” And it’s true, she isn’t. Because she existed only for her art. It sounds extreme, but remember Anna Pavlova opted for death rather than giving up dancing, and died clutching her swan costume. Being completely, insanely devoted to dance makes people great artists, and, to use Addison’s phrase, great stars, but it also makes them a little bit inhuman. And while maybe that means insuring your immortality and becoming a god, it also means becoming something of a monster.
AJ: Was that the whole deal with wings sprouting out of her back?
RJ: I think so, maybe. There was something angelic about that, but there was also something about that that is clearly very bad if you’re a human being.
RJ: Because then wings will be sprouting out of your back.
AJ: That is an interesting point. Fuck you.
RJ: Thank you.
AJ: But Nina had, umm, hobbies, right? There’s that scene where the director is asking her about her sex life and she’s like “oh, no, I’m not a virgin!” She wasn’t completely divorced from humanity.
RJ: She is lying. There is no way in hell that Nina did anything but go home and practice until her toenails split. There’s that scene where she’s practicing all night at the pianist finally just walks out saying “I’ve got a life” and there’s this look of total wonderment and confusion on Nina’s face. Because that room is her life.
AJ: How does Mila Kunis’s character, Lily, the cool new dancer, factor in? She seems fun. She eats hamburgers. She drinks. She shows up late to practice sometimes and laugh-snorts and black tie parties. She seems like someone we could hang out with if she’d promise not to roofie us.
RJ: I think she represents Nina’s idea of what it would be like to have a normal life. I think she’s Nina’s fantasy as well as an actual person. I think she is – get ready for a big chuckle! – both human and dancer. And Nina is not really human, for all she sometimes seems to want to play at being one. I think it’s pretty telling that in the end she has no problems with (imagining?) killing Lily so she can go onstage and perform.
AJ: So, what, the moral is “go out and have fun and eat a hamburger?” “Don’t be all about your work – take some time to relax!” That is bullshit. That is like something we’d read in Cosmopolitan.
RJ: No, I don’t think you come away saying that Nina feels she has made the wrong choices. She’s happy at the end. Because, despite everything else, she dances perfectly. Everyone acknowledges the perfection of her performance. That was what she wanted. And that is great. Really great, great like power of God is great, not great like this granola bar I’m eating is great. But artistic perfection comes at an extreme cost, and there’s a question of whether you can or should devote your life to it. But it is perfect. I think the really interesting question is whether there was ever a moment when Nina could have said, “no, wait a second, I’m getting out of this racket and I’m going to be a normal girl” or if she was just effortlessly borne along by some monstrous force inside of her. I think a lot of this ties back to the story of The Red Shoes about the girl who dances herself to death. Ballet is really a great setting for complete artistic sacrifice. And I think this is really about what it means to be a truly great artist, and that being a great star in any field is is not about having fun at premieres and making out with Johnny Depp and looking at pretty pictures of yourself in magazine articles. It’s a thing that requires tremendous sacrifice, and not in a “oh, I slept with the casting director” way, but in a “I am making some sort of Faustian pact wherein I will trade you my life for greatness in my art” way.
AJ: So I guess everything is not beautiful at the ballet?
RJ: Oh, everything was beautiful at the ballet. Of course everything was beautiful at the ballet. Everything was just terrifying inside the ballerina.