Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s breathless fever dream about the world of ballet, is equal parts brilliant and ridiculous. And because it’s been short-listed for Oscar and has received near unanimous critical raves, I'm going to go ahead and focus on the ridiculous part first.
I mean, has anyone else noticed that this film, while compulsively entertaining and formally beautiful, is also about as subtle as a clog dance?
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a soloist with an unnamed ballet company, modeled after the New York City Ballet. The company’s director, the Balanchine-esque Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is casting a new version of Swan Lake. You see, the former prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) has been put out to pasture and Leroy wants a new star.
The uptight, sheltered Nina would be perfect as the White Swan—the virginal half of the Swan Lake equation. But Leroy fears she’s not sexy or uninhibited enough to play the White Swan’s dark, libidinous other half, the Black Swan.
He casts her anyway, hoping that he can—to borrow a phrase—tease out the whore from within her Madonna.
In case there was any question that Nina is innocent, let me tell you a few key details about her life: She wears almost exclusively white and soft pink. Her bedroom is filled with the most obvious trappings of girlhood: stuffed animals, fluffy blankets, and a music box with a ballet dancer figure that goes round and round and round. And she lives at home with her smothering back stage mama (Barbara Hershey), who, as is consistent with the cliché, is herself a former dancer who gave up her (middling) career to have a child, and who now regards her daughter with a potent mixture of obsessive love and envy.
And then there’s Lily (Mila Kunis), the new girl at the company—who is Nina’s frenemy, alter ego, and if you want to adopt a way-out theory of mine, complete figment of her imagination. She’s the whore to Nina’s Madonna. How do we know this? Because she wears all dark gray and black, has a big tattoo of a plume on her back, laughs freely and lasciviously, eats her burgers “bloody,” and grabs at the crotch of just about any man (or woman) she’s drawn to.
Nina is supposed to be driven mad by the demands of her role. But frankly, she’s pretty nutty from the start. Even before she’s cast as the Swan Queen, we see her staring at Lily and seeing disorienting flashes of herself, scratching obsessively at her cuticles and shoulder blades, and stealing several possessions—a pair of earrings, a tube of lipstick— from Beth’s dressing room. She’s hardly a reliable narrator.
If Aronofsky wanted this film to be about how full immersion into one’s art drives us mad, he should’ve had Nina start with a base level of sanity. It’s almost like he couldn’t wait to let the nightmare begin.
And frankly, I don’t think Black Swan really is about art at all, although it’s certainly about obsession. Instead, what you’re dealing with here is a kind of sexist fantasy of the frigid woman who just needs the coaxing of a powerful man to release the seductress within. In some ways, the film has more in common with the works of Adrian Lyne (Nine 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction) than it does with The Red Shoes, the film Black Swan is clearly inspired by.
So where’s the brilliance in all of this? Well, Black Swan is a phantasmagoric journey—all cracked mirrors and blood and the ethereal beauty of dance contrasted with its cruel realities (bunions, bulimia, broken feet)—and like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Indeed, the film is all about mirrors—Nina mirrors Beth and Lily mirrors Nina and everyone mirrors their respective characters in Swan Lake. What’s more, there are physical mirrors everywhere: The studios, the dressing rooms, Nina’s room, even a kaleidoscopic mirror in the entranceway to Nina’s home.
Aronofsky gets other elements of the horror genre right, too. Nina keeps picking at her cuticles, at one point peeling off a large slice of her skin. She also has mottled skin—from scratching herself, or something else? As her madness deepens, she pulls out a pointy black feather. It is vividly—and memorably— grotesque.
There’s Oscar buzz for Natalie Portman, and deservedly so. She has the long neck and regal posture of a dancer and is surprisingly convincing as a prima ballerina (she reportedly did most of the dancing herself.) Partly because it’s such an out-moded view of female sexuality—Nina literally quivers under Leroy’s touch—it’s a role that could’ve been embarrassing. But Portman plays it with complete conviction, right up until her final hurrah as the bitchy Black Swan.
The other leads, saddled with equally over-the-top characterizations, all inhabit their roles with gusto. If you’re going to this kind of Grand Guignol, you have to do it with utter seriousness. And they all do.
Black Swan is a must see, not because it’s just that great, but because it’s the kind of complicated mixture of genius and folly that everyone has to see—and form an opinion on—for themselves.