Dec 31, 2010

Black Swan

Spoiler alert: this breakdown contains crucial information about the plot of the film.

Black Swan is a movie that makes you pay a lot more than the admission price. But the payoff is huge.

To be honest with you, I found most of the film annoying. Yes, the dancing is lovely. But the scenes of self-flagellation and abuse made my skin crawl. And I don’t like stories about madness or addiction. Besides shoving an unlikable character down our throats, these films have no plot. They keep hitting the same story beat. Sure enough, Black Swan keeps showing us and telling us that Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, is terribly insecure about performing the role of the Black Swan and is too repressed to express the role’s dangerous sexuality.

All of this overshadows two excellent decisions the writers make early on that pay off big at the end. Their first choice happens in the opening scene. In my Great Screenwriting Class I spend a lot of time talking about how to open your story, because it’s the foundation upon which every other story beat depends.

Ironically, the opening in Black Swan is not a story beat at all. It’s just Natalie Portman, as Nina, dancing. In effect the writers are saying, let’s get the big question out of the way right up front: can Natalie Portman dance?. This isn’t Gary Cooper, playing Lou Gehrig, barely able to throw a baseball (Useless Tip: if you ever have to pick sides in softball, just watch how everybody throws). This movie star is a first class ballet dancer. Establishing that fact is crucial to the film’s success because the story is about the sacrifice needed to be the best in the world at your craft, whether it’s a sport, an art form or a combination of the two.

The second crucial choice the writers make concerns the key structural technique necessary to make a madness or addiction story work. Don’t make the prime opponent the affliction. If you do, the hero is just punching herself, and the drama dies. Instead, create outside character opposition that challenges and exacerbates the hero’s personal flaw. That way you create plot and build the drama.

In Black Swan the outside opposition comes from the womanizing director, Thomas, and the competing dancer, Lily, played by Mila Kunis. Lily is especially valuable because she pulls the story out of Nina’s head and introduces the possibility that a very real conspiracy is underway that will destroy the hero. Sometimes paranoid people are justified in their paranoia.

Finally we get to the “battle” scene, the performance. Everything in the film has been one long foreplay for the battle, and it’s a killer. Like all great battle scenes, it’s based on the principle of convergence. The climactic moment of Swan Lake is also the climax of the film story and the climax of Natalie Portman’s performance. Nina overcomes initial failure and not only defeats her demons, she dazzles as the Black Swan. She is sexy and dangerous in the dance, and she passionately kisses the director offstage, after having had to fend him off up until then.

For this to be the same moment when Natalie Portman’s performance crosses into greatness is an incredible thrill that only film can give us. It’s not that she can get into the pain of the White Swan; this we’ve seen for the whole film. It’s not that she can suddenly act the passion and dominance the Black Swan requires and translate that into first class dance. The white heat of Portman’s brilliance comes in how she can shift back and forth between vulnerability and dominance at lightning speed, and be each emotion at the moment she hits it.

The end of the dance and the film shows screenwriting as the height of dramatic art. Nina, as the White Swan, runs up the platform to commit suicide and we think she will do it for real since the real has by now melded so completely with art. She jumps. But wait, there’s the mattress. We feel release, victory; she has defeated her demons. And then we’re flipped again. She’s already done the deed, given herself the fatal wound. It’s the act she had to take to get the performance of her life. We plummet. But she knows; “it was perfect.” She’s the perfectionist taken to her logical extreme, given a self-revelation that is at once brimming with truth and utterly without understanding.