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Two Films -- One Is for Counselors Only

By Nancy Heller Moskowitz, LPC, NCC, CCMHC, 
AMHCA’s Public Awareness, Advocacy & Marketing Committee

I recently saw two movies that seemed appropriate for students and new professionals as well as seasoned counselors. “Barney’s Version” and “Black Swan” both illustrate the darker side of a client’s needs. Each film presents complicated characters and their often destructive coping response to a challenging life situation.

“Barney’s Version”

“Barney’s Version” is based on a 1997 book of the same name by a Montreal author, Mordecai Richler. The film is 132 minutes and has some sex, nudity, and violence. 

Let me introduce Barney Panofsky, played masterfully by Paul Giamatti. Barney tells his story as he remembers it. We are first introduced to him sitting in his living room, drunk and smoking a cigar. When he calls his former wife, her husband answers and says: “Barney, it’s 3 a.m. and Miriam (Rosamund Pike) is not your wife anymore. I’m not going to wake her.” After a few more minutes of frustrating conversation, Barney hangs up the phone and we see him looking sadly at earlier pictures of his wife. Clearly, he is having trouble letting go of this relationship. 

In flashback, we see that Barney has had a drinking problem for many years, dating back to his bohemian days in 1970s Rome. He has a strong work ethic, as he is the only one of four friends to have a paying job at the time. He also has a conscience, as shown when he agrees to marry his pregnant girlfriend. It is then revealed that he isn’t the father, and after a few days of separation, he goes to her apartment to find that she has committed suicide. He is devastated, and there is a very interesting scene between Barney and his father-in-law. Barney throws the man out because he speaks so horribly about his daughter. 

Although more angst and grist for a counselor’s session, we can see some strengths in Barney’s personality. He is very compassionate, even though he can be a total jerk. Somehow his friends and the women in his life want to be around this sloppy, pudgy-looking guy in spite of his obvious character flaws.

When he and Miriam divorce, their son wants no part of him. The viewer learns that Barney, feeling lonely, has a one-night stand. He gets scared that he might have contracted an STD and runs to the family doctor. When Miriam misses him, too, and returns, she wants to make love. Barney avoids this because he hasn’t gotten the results of his test. The doctor calls in the next scene and Barney is relieved, but when Barney confesses his one-night stand to Miriam, she decides she has had enough of his immature behavior. 

Miriam moves on with her life and a new husband, Blair (Bruce Greenwood), a solid, clean-living radio producer who helps her return to her professional life. Barney is left with himself. This common situation is often a presenting issue for many a marital case. The solution is often complicated and requires much supervision for the new clinician. It can be a time when storytelling and blame can get in the way of successful resolution.

One interesting character in the film is Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), Barney’s widowed, former beat-cop dad. Izzy is sometimes vulgar and inappropriate, yet he loved his wife and son. His scenes often show him talking with Barney about life. 
A very moving scene occurs when the two are standing at the gravesite of Barney’s mother. Izzy tells of his joy at knowing that one day he and his wife will lie together again. Then he says he needs to get laid. This is followed by Barney learning that his father has died, in—of all places—a whorehouse. He is laid out on a red-covered slab and Barney starts laughing, saying, “You look like a king!” This is a very emotional scene as Barney alternates between crying and laughing while holding his father’s hand.

Movie reviewer Roger Ebert observed that Giamatti plays unremarkable, but, memorable men. He also states, “Women persist in seeing things in us. As men, we must be grateful.” This is a fitting ending. Enjoy the film!

“The Black Swan”

This riveting Golden Globe winning 2010 movie stars Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a young, ambitious ballet dancer. It is 108 minutes long and often very disturbing to watch. Portman’s portrayal was superb, and the rest of the cast played convincing characters, too. 

The film shows perfection, obsession, and repression at their most horrific. Nina has finally been selected as the prima ballerina for “Swan Lake,” a role that requires her to play both the White and Black Swan. After her audition, in which she performs the White Swan part, the director tells her she has danced perfectly, and that “if you had to play the White Swan only, I would not have any trouble selecting you. But remember, you need to play the Black Swan, too.” He chooses her in spite of her uneven performance. 

Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s mother, Erica, who is determined to see her daughter succeed where she did not. We learn that Erica had studied to be a ballerina, too, but left the stage when she became pregnant with Nina. She pressures her daughter and is featured tragically in some of Nina’s hallucinations. Nina’s struggle to gain independence from her mother is the source of many unhealthy transactions. 

Vincent Cassel plays Thomas LeRoy, the director of the ballet company, who is the catalyst for Nina unleashing her repressed sexual desires. He taunts her in a number of scenes. When he kisses her deeply, without her permission, Nina bites him hard. He tell her, “Remember this feeling as you uncover your Black Swan. 

In another scene, he invites her to his apartment, where he finds out that she is a virgin. He tells her to leave and suggests that she go home and masturbate so that she understands her desires and sexuality. In another scene, he brings in another more emotive dancer (Lily, played by Mila Kunis) who causes Nina to feel threatened. 

In a later scene, Nina is at a bar with Lily where her drink is drugged to help her lighten up. The audience sees her flirting and getting drunk, and she ignores her mother’s many calls. This is the first time that she isn’t the compliant daughter.
So many scenes feature Nina’s need to be perfect. There is a fantasized lesbian scene between Nina and Lily that causes viewers to wonder whether or not it was real. Lily establishes that it was a fantasy and Nina slips further into a dissociative state. Lily is the better choice for the part, which drives Nina even harder.

Finally, there is a brief scene with former prima ballerina Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), who has been tragically hit by a car, her body severely damaged. During a second visit to Beth, Nina comes into the hospital and puts down a pair of diamond earrings (that she has been seen wearing throughout the movie), a compact, a file, and a lipstick, and we realize that she stole these things from Beth’s dressing room. 

When Beth asks why she stole them, Nina answers, “Because I wanted to be perfect!” In another scene, Beth appears to be stabbing herself (a hallucination of Nina’s), but she is saying; “ I’m not perfect! I’m nothing!” 
Each of these scenes illustrates distorted body image, repressed sexual feelings, and obsessive behavior.

“Black Swan” is for the clinician to watch, not the client. I think that there are too many disturbing situations that might be damaging to a client. It is a study of deep and terrifying psychological situations. For most of us, this film relates to the extreme behaviors of our clinical population. Good luck with this one!

Until next time,