For some people, my family and many of my friends included, Black Swan – the 2010 film by director Darren Aronofksy about the psychological breakdown of a ballerina – was somewhat overdone: a film that was kind-of-enjoyable, prettified, but still, basically, just an example of slightly hysterical schlock masquerading as ‘art’. Supposedly devoid of plot, of plausibility, of logic, even of sense, for quite a few viewers it seems, the strange, unhinged work was nothing more than a heap of pink-feathered nonsense dressed up in the ambitious, statue-grasping tulle of Oscar bait. For others, drawn initially into its dark but delicate web but subsequently repelled, the film was simply too disturbing, an unsuccessful and ridiculous attempt to fuse the seventies and eighties horror film tropes of Carrie and Suspiria with the classic tale of female ambition and treachery in All About Eve: a silly and illogical potboiler of a film, too dream-like, yet half-baked, with too many overt cinematic references to Powell & Pressburger’s Red Shoes – that other, lurid Oscar-winning ballet film that has proved, over time, and for good reason, to be so influential.
I can see all this, see how others might see the film, find it too ‘weird’, too ‘pretentious’, too ‘gay’, but then I am blind to it. For me, Black Swan is a pitch-perfect masterpiece: a film I am so bound to, that I loved so completely, that it was only on the eighth or ninth viewing or so recently that I was able to watch it without bursting into tears. And then begin to watch it more measuredly; more analytically, in terms of colour; of construction, of camerawork, of acting and nuance.
At all other times, and even this tenth time, as I obsessively deconstruct the film in preparation for what I am writing now, I have been so swept up in the torrid rush of emotions that Black Swan evokes in me that I have been practically destabilized: the first time, and this is truly no exaggeration, the moment that Nina, played so tragically, so exquisitely, by Natalie Portman to the beauteous crescendos of Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful ballet, the moment she leaps from the top of the stage to her figurative and literal death, to the wild and unknowing applause from the theatre audience, that ending had me on the floor. I was completely beside myself; rushed into the garden sobbing in a state of total overcome: it killed me.
You may laugh, scorn and despise me for this apparent hyperbole: god he’s always so bloody over the top, can’t he try and be a bit less heady, but it literally was so. It had never happened before, and it has never happened since ( I do not make a habit of hurling myself to the ground ), but I remember that first time, a pirate copy sent by my sister because I couldn’t wait for it to come out at the cinema having read all the reviews, I remember being on the edge of my seat, in the darkness, hand covering my mouth, my heart beating wildly, my breathing almost stopped, and at that devastating conclusion it was though I had lost myself; lost in the paroxysms of her self-murdering delirum, as though I myself were also dying on that stage with her.
The possible reasons for this admittedly excessive reaction, aside the mastery of the film itself, I will explain shortly. It goes without saying, though, that many of us have works of art – songs, poems, perfumes, films – that touch us very deeply on a personal level even when they are ineffective and meaningless for others. It is all subjective. But Black Swan, a film I adored even before I saw it, is a piercing, painful work of art that goes straight for my personal jugular, my Achilles Heel ; chiefly, I think (and I know I have dwelled on this before on the Black Narcissus ), because it taps into the sorrows I felt in my childhood that I couldn’t enjoy the things that supposedly ‘normal’ boys did; that I was instead lost, constantly, in the imaginary: the magical world of Russian fairy tales and The Arabian Nights, the piano music of Satie and Debussy, but, most of all, ridiculously perhaps, in my intense, intense longing to do ballet. I would dance, passionately, wildly, about my bedroom alone to imagined choreographies of Tchaikovsky ballets. The little ballet poof, dancing, alone, ecstatic and exasperated, to Sleeping Beauty. And it is this, a sublimated, repressed pain, that is released so spectacularly in Black Swan I suppose, tapping into that piercing blackness and solitude I would sometimes slip into as a child; that predictable Proustian hypersensitivity, the terrifying knowledge, and it was terrifying, that I would be teased, bullied for wanting to do such a ‘ponce’ s thing; a homophobic environment that killed my dream before it could even be embarked upon. There is no keener emotional pain than a child’s; it is so searing, so pure; unfiltered; it is simply there, feelingly sentient and all-encompassing; and while I don’t for a moment want to give the impression that I had an unhappy childhood (because I didn’t: I think of my childhood as being happy and full of wonder in despite of the dark, unforgiveable secret I was harbouring), the deeply romantic ballet music of Tchaikovsky, with its surging melodic impossibilities; the overwhelming expression of the composer’s own deeply wounded repressions (which I didn’t know about at the time, but which spoke to me anyway, intuitively, through the music), all combined with a deeply moving tale of an unstable ballerina’s struggle towards not only acceptance, but also artistic perfection in the face of intolerable pressure, it all touches some very deep nerve in my psyche that until now I wasn’t even ready to fully acknowledge even to myself.
Despite its mainstream critical and commercial success, Black Swan is seen as ‘edgy’: as a bit weird, dirty even, with its R-rated sex scenes and aspect of Cronenberghian body horror ( the film does not shy away from the darker realities of the ballet life while still fully capturing its beauty ), but it is precisely because of the so called ‘dinginess’ of the film ( hand-held cameras and a genius use of avian light pinks and greys), the allusions to cheap horror (Argento, De Palma), tinted with some of the phantasmagoric surreality of The Red Shoes, that the film works so well for me. Stripped of the usual Hollywood sentimentality, rammed- home messages and self-conscious acting, its feel-good endings, special effects and gun-toting action, doused in a grimy and threatening New York city with its sinister, corrupting figures lurking in the shadows, Nina’s paranoid single-mindedness, but also her child-like innocence, make her a uniquely compelling character, especially in the hands (and eyes) of Natalie Portman. She is amazing in it, but I think that one of the reasons that the film also succeeds so well for me is in its essential, inherent integrity ; you could tell instinctively that this was not some studio-by-numbers template, but a labour of love that Darren Aronofsky, maker of the almost unbearably bleak ‘Requiem For A Dream’ had in mind, apparently, for almost a decade before the project even got the green light. You can somehow feel it. He and his lead actress had been conceiving, and evolving, the project for so long together in their brilliant and inspired collaboration that by the time it finally came to fruition it had already gestated, been borne out in their imaginations, dream-marinated long enough before the expert cinematographer (Matthew Libatique), composer (Clint Mansell) and the rest of the (perfectly chosen) cast came on board and they could start filming. For me, this lived-in savour of ‘destiny’, of something that was meant to be, is the precious lifeblood that flows, cannily, beneath the film’s apparently insubstantial (for some people), almost shallowly constructed forms.
At the heart of Black Swan is the story of the conscientious, but unstable and extremely vulnerable, ballerina Nina Sayer’s long yearned for promotion to the role of The Swan Queen in libidinous, manipulative ballet director Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassell) ‘stripped down’ production of Swan Lake. In forcibly retiring his former star, his ‘little princess’, (Beth Mcintyre, played brilliantly with coal black, invidious eyes by Winona Ryder), the stage is properly set for Nina, once she has seduced the ballet director in a desperate ploy for the role, to usurp, take over the former protegée’s position, her dressing room, and even, tantalizingly, her perfume.
Nina is a sweet but psychologically and emotionally fragile perfectionist, sexually immature, both overprotected and bullied by her sharp, overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) – previously a ballet dancer herself, but forever part of the corps, never rising higher because of her daughter and thus infusing her, sadistically, with her blackened resentment. Nina is almost pitiful in her childlike vulnerability despite her beauty, while displaying, simultaneously, a fierce thirst for the spotlight and competitive backbone that lead her, eventually, to getting the role she covets more than anything on earth.
Even before she is selected, however, Nina has her eyes on prime position, lingering outside principle ballerina’s Beth Mcintyre’s dressing room, furtive, gazelle-like, as though she could osmose the position simply by being in proximity. Then, impulsively, after one practice session, she rushes into her dressing room and locks herself inside after Beth has exploded in a diva fit of rage upon discovering that she is, because of her ‘age’, being let go. It is here that we see Nina’s talismanic theft of some possessions from her soon-to-be predecessor’s vanity; a lipstick, a nail file, and beautifully, and mysteriously, a mostly used up, old Chanel parfum bottle which she places, face down, on the glass surface as though afraid that its totemic power will leak out if she were to actually acknowledge its presence, its name, (and thus her crime). And yet that iconic flacon is unmistakeable: a monument of 20th century design commissioned by Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, that ‘exterminating angel’ of fashion and design whose scents, then and now, seem to glorify, eternally, the elegantly simple complexity that the art of ballet equally exemplifies.
A Chanel extrait, then, we know: stolen, but we do not know its identity. It is here, in its unknowableness, that the perfume gathers power. Where usually perfume bottles are used as mere decorative set props in films, brief flashes in bathrooms to signify wealth and luxury, their labels are not usually purposefully obscured. In this case, however, the careful placing of the bottle, downwards, faceless, and the consequent guilt-ridden absconding with it, with the unconscious desire of retaining some of Beth’s apparent perfection (” I just wanted to be perfect”) induces great power and mystery in the liquid itself. The perfume has become, here, a totem; a vial of magic.
I know how those Chanel bottles smell. How the fragrance, once you have gently broken off that waxen hymen, tints the glass stopper in slow breathing emanations; the thick, smooth glass of the flacon – familiar, ergonomic, small enough, in the 7ml form, to slip into a pocket, provided you have driven in the stopper with enough force. I have had many of these bottles, I love these bottles, and my senses leapt even more to attention when I noticed this moment for the first time on the screen.
Yes, that bottle is a mystery. All we know is that it is a Chanel, and that it is a parfum. A repository of casual luxury, a tiny flacon of on-standby taste to be applied when need be – a smear of the stopper on the wrist or the back of the neck enough to impart that smart, Chanelish enigma around the person, make them feel complete. The ideal perfume for a respected artist in the New York Ballet, a post performance dinner at some cosy, expensive Manhattan restaurant, the perfect, and stylish, finishing touch.
But which perfume is it?
The first time I saw the film I assumed automatically that it must be N° 22. I was fusing Beth and Nina in my mind, and was imagining more which Chanel perfume Nina herself would be naturally drawn to. Long before seeing Black Swan, and even before I began The Black Narcissus, I had written a piece on this wonderful perfume comparing it to a lake; to swan’s feathers, a scent that is both contemplative and romantic; tranquil and simply beautiful with its meltingly sweet balustrade of white florals, aldehydes and incense; swan wings fluttering; the beating of wings, of the dying, desperate ballerina; those mute, austere creatures flying gracefully across Swan Lake.
But this is not, we remember, Nina’s perfume. It is the perfume that she stole. Leaving aside, then, the possibility that the bottles (which somehow look to me like an earlier vintage model; old, well used), could be the extrait versions of Chance, Allure or Coco Mademoiselle, which would thoroughly ruin my illusions (those artificial, mother-of-pearl, purified post-Angel patchoulis were never my personal cup of tea: too insistent, too damn vulgar and obvious), we are left with the enticing possibility that the perfume might in fact be Bois Des Isles; Gardénia, N°s 5 or 19, or even Cuir De Russie. Certainly the latter could smell very mysterious and alluring on a winter coat; thick fur over ballet clothes on a starry, freezing New York night. Also Bois Des Isles, warm, enveloping, snug and spicy: that burnished, gingerbread sandalwood lingering in furred remembrances on a collar. It could be.
Somehow though, the sheer athleticism of the dancer, the pain, the sweat, the tears, do not entirely compute with these rich and luxuriant animalics, and in any case, despite Beth’s almost feral, furious devil-flashing eyes, neither Bois Des Isles nor Cuir De Russie strike me as quite the kind of perfumes she would wear; not the kind of perfumes to just sling around either, left nestling in some forgotten bag, unboxed in a drawer.
Could the stolen perfume, then, be Coco?
This would certainly make sense. I often associate dark haired, pale-skinned beautiful and ‘difficult’ women with spiced orientals such as the original Opium and Coco for some reason, and Beth clearly has some flashy, bad girl tendencies. Coco does seem somehow rather imaginable: idiosyncratically diva-ish, large scale, baroque; sexy. Chronologically, it also makes sense as it would have come out when she would have been coming of age in the mid-eighties, a scent she may have started wearing as an adolescent. A signature scent for a tigress ballerina: gorgeous, flirtatious, easy to remember, to loiter about the glinting white edges, the mirrored spaces, of her cloistered dressing room.
Researching further, however, like some maniacal perfume detective (an entire afternoon and evening of watching; stopping; rewinding, and photographing the movie as it rained heavily outside and I ensconced myself in the upstairs room with all the blinds shut in cinephilic sequestration), suddenly, in one particular frame, I saw, or thought I could see, a faint Nº.
Freeze framing blurred; but yes, doesn’t it, it does look like one of those numéros: I don’t think that I can see a n°2 in it: no there is definitely no 2…. thus banishing all thoughts, forever, of the mysterious perfume being our soft, cygnet-breathing aldehyde. The White Swan, yes, the role that Nina has mastered almost effortlessly. But the Black Swan? The evil queen of darker forces that Nina constantly struggles to master? It doesn’t work.
So could it be N°5?
Of course it could: the world’s most famous perfume: delectable, sensual, millions and millions of those iconic parfum bottles in constant circulation; passed down, gifted; used up, rebought; easier to imagine being used more casually; there is always something so lovely about that old, mellowed parfum, a Nº5 that has aged and grown into itself, that you can smell from just handling the bottle and smelling its thick, glassy contours. Surely it could be this – one of the world’s most instantaneously attractive of perfumes, so rounded, scintillating, come-thither, pliant…..
Which is all so emphatically not Beth.
And in any case, looking even closer to solve the mystery, stopping the film again, surely I think now there are two figures I can see, yes, and couldn’t one of them be a 9?
It is N° 19.
My favourite perfume. And suddenly it all begins to unravel, make sense even though I then feel further embroiled (my perfume? really?) upon realizing the perfume’s identity ( I had honestly had no idea). I am thrilled: by the coincidence, and also by the precisions and mania of such painstakingly detailed film production design, the producers selecting a perfume from among tens of thousands that the character might actually wear: contemplating, properly, the perfume’s psychology; an angular, elegant and aloof scent; and, like those body-punished, starved ballerinas themselves, free of excess fat: a perfume that girds you down; trims off the excess, imbues you with an austere self control that would also match not only Beth’s ferocity and ill-humoured impetuousness, but also her steely ambition – something that Nina is increasingly also recognizing within herself as she attempts to seduce Leroy into giving her the coveted role of the Black/White Swan. When she kisses him, bites him, is she already wearing the Chanel?
Nº19 parfum, in vintage, is truly a marvel of inspired olfactive artistry. Centred around a powdered, silvery Florentine iris, which varies from batch to batch in beauty and intensity like the finest wines, but which at its best is an iris that is just pulse-slowingly beautiful with a stone cold, grey iridescence: severe in its chic: overlaid with the sharpest, green archangels of bergamot, fierce galbanum and hyacinth; tempered, cleverly, with a sweet, rich stream of ylang ylang that flows through the top stages, gathering with it the rose and neroli that form a significant heft of this perfume, creating its heart (it does, ultimately, despite its reputation, have a heart). One can thus easily imagine Beth evanescing this coldly passionate, almost cruel beginning, and by stealing the perfume from her dressing room, Nina, also, with her (now contaminated) preternatural innocence, willfully ascend above the mediocrity that surrounds and constantly threatens to destroy her. Nº19, the most beautiful perfume, with its inexplicably rich, yet tautly strung, delicately clinging finish of refined vetiver, oakmoss and leather, much like the wood-laden, dolent resonances of a solitary cello; as the ballerina, lost in the solitary confinement of the spotlight, executes her feverish choreography in glorious isolation. The heartrending death of a Swan Queen; bathed in blue light: the rapt, silent audience in the cusp of her unfurling.
Naturally, Nina has to pay a price. As her paranoia grows, as the terrifying sense that she is being overpowered by shadows, by splintered mirrors, where even her own reflection is in perilous doubt, Nina becomes convinced that her rival/lover Lily (played with great humour and effortlessness by Mila Kunis) – loose, free, sexy, as critic Manohla Dargis calls her, a ‘succulent, borderline rancid peach’ – is poised to take over her role. She feels ensnared; cursed. The stolen items, the cosmetics that she has used to achieve her goal; the perfume that she keeps in her like a totem of fragrant black magic, the nail file, all of it suddenly becomes quite tainted with a building, schizophrenic malevolence that becomes untenable and petrifying to her, as she is drawn, inexorably, into the masochistic vortex of art and self-destructive stage fright.
Rushing to the hospital where Beth lies maimed and disfigured, partly unconscious under medication following a failed suicide attempt, we see Nina, frantically place, full of fear, with a note, each item on a table next to her.
The dark of the Chanel bottle on that hard, glassened surface, echoing with guilt.
The horror as Beth’s hand juts out startlingly, grasping Nina’s wrists in fury:
” You … stole my …things ?”
“I……. just wanted to be perfect, like you. ”
“Perfect? Oh, I’m not perfect……..”
“I’m………. NOTHING!!” she screams at her replacement:
transforming, suddenly, morphing into Nina, stabbing herself ferociously in a suicidal frenzy as Tchaikovsky’ thrilling music rises up in an overwhelming crescendo of emotion that threatens to make me lose it as she flees in terror from the hospital, via a final, violent confrontation with her mother, and then on to the theatre where she insists on performing the role of The Swan Queen, the part that has now been taken over by her nemesis and understudy, Lily.
It is at this point that I become swept up in this film like a ranchhouse in a twister, my heart pounding, my soul racing with some dark, strange, exhilaration and longing. I am possessed, absorbed to a point of ecstatic saturation: in its beauty, its wild energy, its hypnotic rush, its psychotic luridness, in the mesmerizing performances of his principle players, particularly Portman, who loses herself so thoroughly in the role that I lose myself with her: I am her.
And when she then experiences a full, schizoid mental fracturing into hallucinatory homicide in her back stage dressing room (metaphorically killing her ‘white swan’ in order to access her black, and in the process finally, in some senses, breaking free and achieving the balletic perfection she has yearned for so long, yet simultaneously shattering into pieces internally; only the burning core desire still left to reach perfection in her performance for sustenance); as she dances the final stages of the ballet she was tragically destined to master; as she plunges to her death, and the music reaches an almost unbearable pitch of emotional intensity, I think I die with her in some ways each time I watch, in an agonizing apotheosis of aesthetic and emotional joy and release: a wild and orgiastic paroxysm of art; of cruel beauty; and piercing, tragic catharsis.