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.
88 responses to “STOLEN : THE SECRET CHANEL PERFUME AT THE HEART OF ‘BLACK SWAN’”
Your writing is as mesmerizing as the movie. I admire both so much.
I love the way you live, Neil. Full-on emotion, drowning, no holding back, but still able to set it all in intellectually brilliant words, finely crafted sentences, stunning images to tug us into the maelstrom with you. And we come willingly…
You probably don’t realize how much this means to me.
I think I put myself a little bit too much on the line here, but I know you know that every word is true.
And I LOVE that you love the film as well. I think it is perfection.
Reading this is like re-watching the movie in my mind all over again. Wow… that movie resonated so much with me and now to find out that little stolen bottle was No. 19 is just like seeing all the pieces of a cosmic puzzle slide into place. No. 19 is also one of my favorite perfumes ever and I am also lucky to own a small remnant of vintage extrait which belonged to my Grandmother.
I adore this mutual synchronicity.
And the fact that there are others who were as engulfed by this film as I was.
WOW, I am speechless and my heart is still beating wildly after reading this epic. Your writing and descriptions are amazing!
Really? My hope was to communicate some of my own heartfelt palpitations so if I have succeeded in any way I am delighted.
For this post I needed more time than for the usual ones. It couldn’t have been done in the work week. It needed the space of this new year break, but I knew I had to write it.
Your words leave me with none except Thank you.
And thanks to you for not leaving me alone in my strange predicaments and obsessions. I feel that here I really reveal myself as the non- reality based otaku that I am.
My thoughts about this piece echo what everyone else has said…this was intriguing from start to finish. I could feel, as I read your description of the pain you experienced as a child at not being able to reveal your true desires, that you may have felt that you were laying yourself bare a little too much (and that was confirmed in your reply to Olfactoria’s comment), but you went on and did it anyway and we are the beneficiaries of your honesty and bravery. I hope that you’ll continue to write what you feel as in doing so, you help to remind me, that as an artist, the personal is always more universal and that when we express ourselves from the heart what we create will always find resonance with people in this world who seek truth and a deeper meaning in things. Thank you.
What you say here also intrigues me: about the personal and the universal….. there is so much fudge in this world, if you know what I mean: so much set expression, fixed ideas and artificial bullshit that I sometimes feel that I must cut through it no matter what the cost. And there is a strange, clarifying thrill to just ti shiny what you are doing, pausing for a second, and then delivering it to the stratosphere. Even if just one person reads it and is intrigued or empathizes in some genuine way it is like some kind of beautiful release. Despite the stresses and mindfucks of the Internet, I am ultimately so glad to be living in the here and now, and to be able to have this kind of exchange about something I feel so passionately about.
Thanks for reading and for your comment.
Truly fantastic musings here. I am totally swept into both the drama of the film and the perfume – I LOVE that you have found this. Brilliant piece.
Did you like the film?
Most of my friends were ambivalent. But in any case, there is something totally exhilarating in doing this Hercule Poirot thing and then discovering it is our beloved 19. I know the perfume has equal power for you.
I haven’t seen the film yet, but I love how you talk and write about it. I love that you sought out the perfume of that moment in that way and discovered no 19 at the heart of it. Yes, it’s a really special one for me too – I can literally smell it at this moment as we’re mentioning it. I’ll watch the film and write some more to you on it.
Really I would massively love your take on it. Is it just histrionics, surface? Or is it the feverishly delicate masterpiece I think it is ? Nina I LOVE it.
If you do watch it: lights off, no distractions, booze and high volume. I love just sinking into it and luxuriating into its shallows. Truly one of the most breathless cinematic crescendos of all time the way it builds.
As an added thought, on APJ today there is a video of a speech about living completely. The most striking part pertained to living life most fully by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Your blog lays open parts of your life that may cause you to feel such, but I hope that by doing so, the joy of your life can also flow freely.
Sorry I didn’t reply to your comment before, Nancy. Such an interesting thing to be talking about, but discussing vulnerability is a strangely vulnerability inducing thing. The impulses behind this blog are possibly different to some others, for as you have noticed here, I have this strange urge to just lay things open. I wonder sometimes how much of it is even about perfume.
I agree with all the comments here. I too felt there was everything to be excited about in this film before I’d seen it and have found myself watching it many times, despite some initial disappointment. Overall I would say it’s great, the camera work, Natalie Portman’s performance (who’s work previously I had zero interest in but was perfectly cast here), and get totally swept up towards the climax and also share painful empathy towards the end. I did find areas of it a little empty or flimsy or something, but then maybe that is just the style of film, it is of course positively different to the lushness of The Red Shoes and the dancing is similarly minimal. And perhaps sillily I was disappointed in the choice of lipstick used, first dismissing it as a missed opportunity (it doesn’t look like a classic, glamorous lipstick but sort of cheap and girly?) but then now I don’t think it’s an oversight at all – the flowers (unless I’m missing a well known American make) on the lipstick actually fit in well with the girlishness referenced elsewhere to do with the ‘ballerina’, like the slightly pathetic daytime clothing of Nina’s character – girlish, pastel, and perhaps a bit prim? And Beth is still desperately the ‘little princess’. And the talisman-like objects on the dressing table like all else in the film are under-pinned with stark lighting and doom-laden abrasiveness. The discovery and theft of these objects isn’t a lush wondrous thing as such, but tainted with guilt and obsession. I must re-watch it now! And also look out for that extrait…..
I was also swept up in your writing here. Such delightfully personal and painful memories got my heart beating as my own distant feelings chimed excitedly. Thanks again!
I love your observations about the lipstick and the clothes. And the ‘doom-laden abrasiveness”, which is a great way of putting it.
I agree, there is no glamour here, but also agree that they got it right: the casual ( but for me kind of beautiful ) light greys and pinks; despite the abrasion, they are contrasted with all the soft hoodies, trackie bs, and sinister pink fluffy toys.
Yes and the contemporary realness of it, an exciting mix, and I agree about its integrity
A truly brilliant piece.
A puzzle within a paroxysm of passionate adoration.
I’m so pleased it was No. 19, so pleased that your riddle had a satisfactory, if deeply unhappy, answer.
Really what one thinks about the film is an irrelevance, your writing stands alone.
The Perfumed Dandy
As you will know, I truly put my heart and soul into this one so I am very glad that you didn’t think that it was just a pile of old mush.
I would really love to know your take on the film, though, even if you hated it. If you have time, the Dandy’s take por favor.
Dearest Ginza, I think this is your best piece so far. I did not see this film. In my work I deal with so many people in the grip of psychotic illness that I conceived an a priori hatred for a film that, by report, seemed to glorify madness as inextricably entwined with the deeper realms of art. I do not see the madness that is profoundly artistic. I see the kind that destroys souls and bodies and lives. You have given me a different perspective, and you were willing to be self-revealing in a way that turned my preconception a few degrees and let me see further down a road that nourished you artistically. For that gift, many thanks. All the best to you in the new year.
One of my patients told me with great amusement about a relative who asked him if he was “going anywhere in 2014.” The answer that he wanted to give was “deeper.”
I think that is beautiful, and I would love to follow on the same path.
I definitely agree about the glorification of madness being quite suspect. A Japanese friend of mine who I took to the cinema to see this (she was slayed and loved it as much as I did and we spent the entire night talking about it and what it released in us) said to me nevertheless that she couldn’t watch it again because she is a woman. As a part of a society where there is a lot of unexpressed and often quite nasty, female competitiveness especially in relation to children and schooling, I think it went too close to the bone for her. She see my obsession with it as almost misogynistic, as ENJOYING watching her destruction. I don’t know if this is true or not, as I feel, as I said, that I AM her. Seriously. For all the reasons I explained (plus my failure to become a pianist, which I think is entwined with the artistic obsessionism of the film : I can relate to it).
However, going deeper and risking exposing things that perhaps shouldn’t be, for some reason many of the films I love the most pertain to female madness: Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, Vertigo….
Inland Empire in particular, David Lynch’s weirdest, deepest work, is a genius exploration of the darkest recesses of the subconscious. Black Swan is much more the surface, blood pounding realities of a breakdown. And it is so damn beautiful.
And a very good new year to you as well.
It is interesting to think about what is healthy or positive about certain darker pieces of art. I’m not sure about David Lynch’s misogyny as I always felt a real empathy and evenness to the way he treats all his characters, but Hitchcock’s misogyny is so definitely personal and deep, and it’s not that in itself that is celebratory but the honesty and passion in his work?
This has made me think actually, I got my violin out yesterday for the first time in years, and I think that must be positive, though it brings with it some negative moods a bit like painting can, though I know I get more good out of it than bad. When I was younger I suffered from terribly shaky hands so could no longer perform and perhaps that’s what stopped me developing into my teens…
I love how this film and the discussions that are coming out of it are so emotion- stimulating.
And I agree that Lynch most definitely is not a misogynist, that Hitchcock was, but I love him anyway. And it is all so complicated in any case. There is far much more sexist crap in modern day cinema: at least Alfred, as you say, was real. It was his obsession, his vision, and he gave us unforgettable, sensual experiences that last a lifetime. You may have read my piece on the earthquake, and how, in a shocked state I came home and the only thing I could do was watch The Birds.
Yes it’s so hard to pin it down and his films are so infinitely rewatchable, I can understand the surrealness and the fantastic scope of his vision that would make you want to watch that then. Separately but somewhat coinciding with this post I discovered Abba’s last album The Visitors, and got swept up in it, then dismissed my obsession as dark and maudlin, but today I’ve realised how uplifting and amazing I find it. It’s probably so subjective and a bit of an unfashionable or embarrassing preoccupation but I love it. It’s funny how things that can be so liberating one minute can seem self-indulgent and negative the next and vice versa!
The Visitors is a work of dark Scandinavian genius, overlooked, which is why it is so fantastic to ( re) discover it.
When I was a kid I became obsessed with the single Head Over Heels, which I bought at the local Woolworth’s when staying at my grandparents’s house one weekend. I played it the entire weekend ( the b-side was The Visitors ….) amazing alien track.
And Like An Angel Passing Through My Room is so double edged. On the one hand it sounds so innocent. But to me it sounds like suicide.
Amazing! I would so loved to have been a kid in the ealry 80s buying singles. Yes Head Over Heels is great! When I first heard it it felt like such a dramatic dark journey confronting fear and tilting too close to the edge, also knowing it was their last and their relationships ending, from the most beautifully sincerely optimistic band it felt like the end of the world! But it is fantastically uplifting too… I compiled a selection of my most sublime fashion photography whilst listening to it on repeat. Slipping through my fingers is almost too much and Like An Angel does sound like suicide, but also has such a religious quality it’s just beautiful.
I couldn’t agree more. The darkness of ABBA (because of that blasted musical) has been under appreciated.
Neil, you have truly surpassed yourself. What an incredibly powerful piece of writing, your most dramatic and gripping since I have been following your blog. However, all l I can think of, with bathos, is that photo of you in your green tights aged about 9 at the school play. I reach for it in my mind in moments of despair, and I am instantly revived. I’m coming to Tokyo in Feb, would be great to meet up after all these years. I love it that Chanel no.19’s still your favourite perfume. It takes me right back to the Master’s Lawn after an April shower has freshened the newly cut grass. Jo x
PS I work with a ballet company now, and I hate to disillusion you, but dancers seem to spend most of their time in coffee shops and on Facebook. Oh the banality of art…
Good to know, actually: I do get carried away with it all, but I got so swept up in this one that I am delighted you enjoyed it.
Tell me the dates : February is a nightmare exam season but I am free on Sundays. I would really love to meet you again.
As a former professional ballet dancer I only watched the movie once and was deeply disturbed (it brought up too many memories of the darkness of the ballet world that I experienced firsthand). However, I will admit that the movie was exceptional and your review extraordinary. As i have said on numerous occasions you missed your calling.
Possibly, but you know now it might be this..
That the film actually brought back memories for a former dancer is fascinating though, as I obviously have no first hand experience . I imagine Aronofsky managed to capture some of the emotion, the electricity.
Really glad you appeared and wrote something. It was my final gambit.
Agreed…for sure your artistic endeavor is, and must be, the writing as no one does it as well as you. Still I envisage you in tights and ballet slippers in an alternate universe!
and for the record, this is one of numerous comments I left (including a belated happy birthday and happy new year) that, miraculously did NOT get deleted this time!!!!!
Well I would never have deleted them intentionally. And great to hear from you.
And you are probably right about the tights in another universe….
Oh and I HAVE been lurking backstage for quite some time…but I promised my partner that I would abandon my obsessive compulsive tendencies with regard to blogging, perfume, etc as it was becoming all consuming and interferring with my day to day living….so now that I know my comments are not being erased you will see me from time to time!
Thank god for that. THe all or nothing approach was somewhat too severe. Although Duncan is also getting a bit Facebook addicted and I have had similar anguishes to be honest. Sometimes I feel like just banning the computer altogether. I did ban Facebook in Kyoto when we went and it was quite serene as a result.
Oh God my OCD is taking over but I just had to say one last thing….no 19…does not surprise me….a special little beauty I wore in my youth and was ridiculed for wearing whilst all others my age were wafting in Love’s Baby Soft and Heaven Scent!
I love 19 on girls. In fact, apparently, in France it is often seen as a ‘young girls’ scent of green innocence. The vintage edp was amazing, so intense, and so was the gentler edt. But the parfum on me is entirely different, verging on macho in the later stages, and it is this ambiguity that I love: definitively masculine with the leather and vetiver, but impossibly elegant. Right now I am in the stages of a full on oriental obsession, drinking my way through bottles of Bal A Versailles, and can’t imagine wearing Chanel. But when its moment comes, it comes. What are you wearing these days where you are? Are you part of the deep freeze?
You are going to die when you hear what I am wearing….because I gifted away my Liquide Soleile and I am absolutely CRAVING orange blossom I am wearing Jo Malone Orange Blossom…….and also 31….an essential oil blend of three parts lavender (absolute, French and wild from Eden Botanicals) to one part patchould….and yes, I am freezing my little buns off!!!!!
That was supposed to be “patchouli” ……..and I also left out New Caledonia Sandalwood absolute with a tad of Egyptian Rose oil (also both from Eden) at night……..haven’t been wearing too much conventional stuff these days…don’t know why but I am more drawn to oils lately…the sensuous finger applicaton suits me more….
Love that expression: ” the sensuous finger application……”
All I can say to your having given away one of your favourite perfumes is…….. I D I O T !!!
So true…I am an idiot…but that is the least of the many things I have gifted or thrown away………when will I ever learn?????
I really appreciate your spending the time to write at length about the film, not just about the perfume but about the entire cultural product. It’s rare to encounter that in a blog. I personally found it impossible to watch Black Swan. As soon as she was self-mutilating I had to turn it off. Sometimes it is more fun to participate in the culture by reading about it 🙂
Thanks for what you say here. For me, writing about Black Swan was a kind of ecstasy. Something I had to do, particularly when I was able to weave it into my own life story and a perfume as well.
I can also imagine what you mean about not being able to watch, but for me, I can’t keep my eyes off the screen. I have seen the film at least ten times now, and still can’t make myself watch the ‘extra features’ part on the DVD for fear of ruining the spell. Eventually, if I tire of the film (I won’t), then I might watch the interviews with Natalie Portman and so on, though I fear that seeing how they ‘did’ it, in terms of the dancing and so on, is an illusion I cannot bear to break.
I love your writing, and I also love the images that you put into your posts.
I had mixd feelings about Black Swan. It was rich and dark. I was almost overwhelmed by all the symbolism and wondered if it did not go too far in some places and not far enough in others, However that it just me being critical.
I will say, that the movie was beautiful visually, and Natalie Portman was excellent, she is a superb actor.
I was always captivated throughout, and I cried and cried for a while after I saw the film. It touched my own darkness, one that I have mostly moved through, but still see from time to time.
I thought the ending was perfect.
I don’t need to see it again though, but I have been reflecting upon it since your post.
I love that you obsessively figured out what the perfume was.
I wore Chanel 19 in high school, I have no idea why I moved away from it, as I loved it so. I want to explore it again, but I cant get it here in Memphis. I know I can order it, and will, especially after this. Your description definitely suits a part of my personality, Im kind of cat like.
I have been wearing Coromandel for the last few freezing days that we have had (I am not a fan of the cold), and I am really attached to Champagne du Bois, by Sonoma Scents Studio, however #19, I believe, needs to come back into my world.
Thank you for being so awesome.
Sorry for not replying to this sooner and thank you so much for your lovely, and very interesting, comment.
I am touched by what you say about crying after seeing the film: there is some kind of delicately exquisite solidarity reacting in a similar way emotionally to a work of art of art I think; that is exactly what it is all about.
If you do go back to No 19, PLEASE make it vintage, seriously. It just isn’t the same any more. Not at all. Try and get some on ebay or something. The newer version is convincingly green and fresh but just doesn’t have the same soul.
I was afraid that the new version of No 19 would be different, that is one reason that I have not really pursued it. I will definitely go for the vintage. What do you think about the extrait? I was thinking that may be the modern answer.
I wish the companies would leave the perfumes alone!!! I know there are regulations (that make no sense to me), that they have to adhere to, but it is really sad, when they change something that is perfect, leaving it a ghost.
I’ll be scouring ebay here shortly.
Can you please tell me what is the brand of the Beth`s lipstick on the picture above?
Sorry: don’t know anything at all about makeup!
Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus.
Amazing writing Neil. I can so see why this film chimed with you. It’s easy to dismiss on first viewing but there’s something addictive about it. So many scenes sticks with you and you feel compelled to re-watch. The more you do, the more you get sucked in.
Thanks for your detective work – of course No.19! – and for adding another layer to the film for me.
I also didn’t know for ages what formulation of No. 19 to go for, but I do now. Vintage too, if I can.
parfum parfum parFUM’
I read this when you first posted it, and was so thrilled at your brilliant response to the film, the mysterious perfume, and the dark desperation you conveyed in your analysis. I read it for the second time this morning, and I got sucked in again by the intensity of your feelings, and perspective. Thank you. Yours is a welcome voice of intriguing, detailed, and very intimate look at the portrait of the crazed and beautifully innocent ballerina, and the grisly, competitive world of professional ballet.
fantastic review….even the second time around….but I could not bear to watch that movie again….
I haven’t seen it since writing this in January…..
To compare small things with great (Black Swan being the great) I remember loving The Turning Point when I was young. I saw it over and over – Anne Bancroft as the diva on a downhill slope, and the impossibly beautiful Baryshnikov. At the time, and still, I would pay to watch him tie his shoelaces. His every movement is enchantment. It isn’t tragedy, as Black Swan seems to be, but I always wanted to dance as a child and I loved this movie.
Now I’m searching for vintage No 19 parfum …
I have never seen that film but I love the sound of it and the idea that you would pay just to see him tie his shoelaces. There is something deeply beautiful about that.
As for 19, it really isn’t for everyone, and it really does change from batch to batch, but when you get the right one and it suits you it is magnificent.
This is an absolutely incredible piece of writing. I can just feel your passion oozing through the inter webs.
I myself also adored the movie, I own it also, and love seeing the almost film-noir quality in certain scenes.
I knew the bottle was Chanel, I never knew it was 19, bravo for solving that mystery.
This film echoed strongly with me on a very core level, you see I had studied opera for many years. I knew I did not have the drive to persevere and become a prima donna. I had/have the voice (Wagnerian soprano) but not the disposition for the mental games involved. Therefore, it remains the unrequited love/dream of my life.
I guess looking at it from a personal window I understand how Nina would almost need to have a split personality disorder to fight her way to the top; it takes major heartlessness and ambition. No 19 would be the coldly beautiful fragrance any diva would love to wear on her ascendency.
I will now have to rewatch the movie and think of 19 in this context.
Thank you again Neil for reblogging a glorious review I might have missed.
This is the piece that is most true reflective of me, the one I poured myself into the most, so I am thrilled you have responded to it in this way and understand perfectly where I am coming from.
I think, also, that you have tapped into something that I hadn’t quite realized. The deep sense of sadness that the film evokes in me might not only be because of the fact that I was never allowed to do ballet, but also the fact that when I was a kid, everyone was saying that I could be a pianist. In fact, I don’t think that I really could have been, and I certainly don’t have the stamina, drive, or perseverance to perfect anything as my soul is essentially lazy, indulgent and shambolic, but I think at heart there is a sense of guilt that I didn’t try harder with it. Similar to your opera singing (wow, by the way, I can’t imagine being able to sing like that. I am not much of an opera buff, though I enjoy the famous classics by Puccini and Donizetti, and love the songs of Richard Strauss).
I think this film does tap into those feelings of a deep down yearning to be admired and respected, but the way that the film is the antithesis of the usual cinematic formula, where the hero or heroine triumphs over adversity and succeeds in their dream, instead allowing her this satisfaction but having to die in the process, there is something truly heart piercing about it. I literally did throw myself to the ground. I was BESIDE MYSELF.
And I remember watching it for the third time at the cinema in Tokyo with a mini bottle of champagne, and weeping in a taxi in Shinjuku on the way to meet a friend. SO ridiculous. SO overemotional, but I felt completely alive and in touch with everything at the same time. That is what great art can do for you.
Shame his next film, the unwatchable Noah, was so execrable. I had to turn it off. I think Black Swan was just a one-off, and brilliant because of the decade long percolation of ideas with Ms Portman, which really allowed it to grow into something.
God I could talk about this film forever!
I feel exactly the same way you do in regards to this film, it was just that wonderful. Never had the urge to see Noah, happy I did not miss anything special.
I am quite similar to you, in the aspect of never truling having the stamina, nor the perseverance to really go after something I may be passionate about. I find life has always gotten în the way, so to speak.
This film made me understand how much one has to sometimes sacrifice to achieve the goals they aspire to, especially in the performing arts. It was a tragic ending for Nina, but what other ending could there have been. She literally poured her whole being, physically and mentally, into this role, death was the only outcome for her.
See, now you have me revisiting my own bizarre emotions that this movie conjures up in me, including but not limited to the what regrets I have over my own wasted talents. I cannot even write my own blog on a regular basis, how could I have become a prima donna assoluta; see this us what reflecting on this film has done.
Maybe if only I had worn a singular power scent it might have helped. Ah…the what ifs of life.
When we do finally meet in person, which we will one day, let us watch this together. We will share champagne, truffles and wear a fabulous vintage 19 extrait.
Though the combined energy might make the house explode.
I adored this movie … as disturbing as it was .it was very alive and painful to watch .in parts . And I missed the Chanel bottles. How wonderful . I was hoping it would No 5 or No 22. But then again No .19 is also beauty .Thanks for your gorgeous writing .I truly love your blog.
Never saw the Black Swan, but your post reminds me of when I saw the Jane Campion film, The Piano. I went with a bunch of girlfriends and we went out for coffee afterwards. They were all chatting away but I was so moved I couldn’t speak. Later a friend pointed out to me that the role of the deaf-mute is always the most powerful and that was certainly true, but also the images of the unrelenting mud she was slogging through was a visual expression of her inner struggles. Really a masterpiece of a film, for me.
The Piano was utterly exquisite, and I felt similarly. I have never seen it again. I can’t, somehow.
I do feel that Jane Campion was slightly pigeonholed by that film, though, as though that were the only film that she were ‘allowed’ to make. Even though everyone hated it, I adored her very strange In The Cut with Meg Ryan, a serial killer film with a Campion sensibility that I personally rate as utterly brilliant. Woozy, horrifying, incredibly feminine. Also Portrait Of A Lady. She really is great, actually, and I wish she did more. Oh my god yes and how can I forget: Bright Star, about Keats…………that KILLED me. SO beautiful. I was weeping my eyes out on the streets of Ginza afterwards it was so beautifully pure and poetic.
ALSO : people that CAN just chat away after seeing an amazing work of art….well, what can I say….
the less the better
Black Swan didn’t get me like it got you, Neil, but doesn’t matter in the least. I love that it affected you so deeply and I can see why. The main thing is, you shared this incredible piece of writing with us and all the thoughts and feelings behind it . . . and best of all, that it WAS No19 and that that was exactly the fragrance it should have been!!!!!!!! Because you’ve let us know you so well, I feel intensely happy for you. Things aren’t always so perfect, so right. Rarely so. One of my favourite essays of yours, among so many superb ones. Will be wearing the vintage parfum today and rejoicing in all of this.
I was hoping you would respond. This piece IS me. It was embarrassing to publish in a way, but I had to. Thanks.
I’ve gotten to know you through your writing and the stories of your life and actually have become very fond of you! I even rented Black Swan and watched it again after reading this piece to see, to understand what you saw in it. I value your take on things that much. I know you are such a sweet and understanding guy that you wouldn’t mind if your readers felt a different way about it, and that gives me such freedom to respond to you with an open heart, too. I know many of us feel close to you and admire how generously you share yourself with us. Yes, I know you need to express yourself this way, as well, but it IS a gift to us.
I will have to give Black Swan another try.
I think it’s just a matter of sensibility. In some ways, Requiem For A Dream is a better film: I guess I just have camper taste. For me Requiem was just too unrelentingly grim, and annoying in the process.
I need to watch this again, even if only to see if I agree that it’s No 19.
Or perhaps I’ll allow my experience of it to remain this post, rather than the movie itself. Certainly, the former has had a greater emotional impact on me than the latter did.
This is the most truthful and emotional thing I have ever written. Thanks for saying that.
Thank you for finding this perfume! Saved me the work because I know that I surely would have gone through the same trouble as you to find it. I was about to purchase it from Chanel and when I read it’s description, it was eerily evocative of Beth’s character. I wonder if this was intentional in the movie. “Mademoiselle Chanel’s signature scent pays tribute to the day she was born: August 19. The last fragrance launched and worn by her, N°19 is a daring, distinctive, uncompromising composition, in the image of Mademoiselle. A floral, woody, green scent with perfect balance.“ It’s mentions of paying tribute to reminds me of paying tribute to a Beth before she retires. Also it was the last fragrance launched and worn by Chanel before death, much like it being the last fragrance worn by Beth before her retirement and failed suicide attempt. Moreover, this perfume is described as “daring, distinctive, uncompromising position, in the image of Mademoiselle.” This is describing Beth the same way Thomas describes her in the film. Finally, the perfume is described as “perfect,” the reason for Nina stealing this perfume was because she wanted to be perfect, like Beth. I suspect this was intentional. I myself am a ballerina and now that I have turned 15, I feel an intense pressure to become perfect. Watching this movie is addictive for me because I relate to Nina on so many levels and as I watch her dark spiral into the masochistic art of ballet to her ultimate demise, I realize that I am following a chillingly similar path to self destruction. I struggle with OCD and anxiety-related eating disorders much like Nina, and I have always dreamt of becoming the Swan Queen when I grow up. Being 15 is confusing because I am no longer a child nor an adult. Now I must turn my dreams into realities. I desire meaning in my life and ballet gives me that. I feel trapped in fear of losing that meaning and not living out my dream. But now I wonder what happens after? I don’t think happily ever after is real life. Black Swan gives the answer, freedom. In a way I romanticize Nina’s death because she lived her dream and in death, finds freedom. When I watch Black Swan, I feel as though I am watching my own world and my future unravel before me. I aspire to be perfect and live out my dreams. Black Swan is my favorite film, it is beautiful, perfection, and hits very close to home.
My god. There is so much to say to this but I don’t know where to start. I understand precisely what you are saying.
Is it the parfum or the eau de parfum?
You can see from the bottle it is the parfum. Vintage parfum. PERFECTION. I love the vintage edp too, in the silver bottle, but it must be the parfum (and not in a spray, but the dab bottle. The sprays age really badly if you are looking on eBay).
I think this is the most moving, personal and beautiful piece you’ve ever written.
Thank you R.
I can’t write much at the moment because of my arm, but seeing that the Narcissus is getting more traffic than usual because of the new BBC adaptation of Black Narcissus, I thought I would put another Heart-Of-Chapman piece up again. It embarrasses me slightly, this one, but I got so swept in it while doing it!
Having been a teenage boy is the closet, I can relate.
Anticipating how society could hurt you is akin to using your own abilities to spy yourself. It’s like being your own executioner.
As for “Requiem For A Dream” :
Since Lars von Trier’s and Björk “Dancer in the dark”, I can spot a movie that hides a masochistic experience for the viewer.
Yep masochistic : the movie hits you repeatedly on the same weak spot, without the mushy feeling that has a tear-jerker.
I don’t like this trick, I’m not in my cinema seat to endure only a slow burning death.
The more I’m able to spot this kind of movie from the beginning, the less immersion I feel for them anymore. I rest on the surface.
So I’m among the people who thought of “The black swan” as nice, but not great. (not deserving a worldwide recognition and glory)
The protagonist fails to outsmart the trap she’s in. And a huge chunk at the end of the movie goes to waste, because no built expectation is transformed for a bit of surprise.
About no19, Turin and Sanchez talk about the “cloth mother and the wire mother”, saying no19 is very angular. It’s the wire type.
But I set the vintage extrait apart, because it has a welcoming greenhouse aura, that the other concentrations lack of.
Like a greenhouse, it’s a bit suffocating, there are all types of leafy green smell and earthy bits, the extra flowers are exotic (ylang-ylang, tuberose), but all-in-all it’s a lot of benevolent flowers under a dome.
And the basenotes are smoother too, where sometimes nowadays EDT and EDP reminds me of cold ashtrays. (I go to Iris silver mist if I want unalloyed iris.)
So instead of an anal-retentive working girl, in the extrait you have a duchess showing you her warmness. You’re invited for tea-time, and by surprise, not in the castle like other public appearances. You meet her in the huge greenhouse, an extra room to the castle. There is a table, and here she can be her genuine self with people she likes.
YES : the extrait… my god..
Re masochism : Von Trier is shocking in that regard. I loved Dancer ( with reservations), but my partner Duncan was FURIOUS that we had been subjected to Lars’s sadism ( even worse in Melancholia, the only one of his films i unreservedly adored – I guess I like the ‘my heart is exploding in my chest’ feeling to a large extent.
It’s illuminating what you say about Black Swan. It had never occurred to me – not even once – that she might have somehow outwitted her fates