Black Swan arrives in the UK under a torrent of hype and excitement. It’s the new film by Darren Aronofsky, whose The Wrestler rejuventated Mickey Rourke’s career in 2008. It stars Natalie Portman in her first solo leading role, with support from the exciting cast of Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis, and Winona Ryder. It is set in the difficult and competitive world of ballet, and includes a lesbian sex scene. And from start to finish it is complete and utter trash.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, a middle-ranking dancer in a ballet company in New York, who is competing for the lead role in their upcoming production of Swan Lake. The lead is renowned for its difficulty, as it involves dancing in two completely contrasting styles – it’s a doubled part as the angelic white swan and the evil black one. Nina is a technical perfectionist, but when privately demonstrates to company director Thomas Leroy (Cassel) that she is more than capable of dancing the part of a passionate temptress, she shocks no one more than herself. The rest of the movie is about her resulting destruction.
Portman and Mila Kunis, as new dancer Lily who slowly earns Nina’s trust, spent months in training, and it shows. Doubles were used for some of the longer shots – think of the dream sequence in Oklahoma! with better CGI – but for the most part and to the actresses’ credit the dancing is like the real thing. Amy Westcott’s costumes subtly demonstrate the gradual unravelling of Nina’s mind, and as intended theatrically overpowers the characterisations within the dance sequences. Therese DePrez’s production design contrasts the concrete-and-mirrored rehearsal caverns where Nina spends her days with the overwhelmingly cluttered apartment she shares with her mother Erica (Hershey). There is not-so-subtle doubling throughout the movie, with the repeated motifs of Nina’s reflection, the way which Nina and Lily are treated within the corps de ballet, and of course the names Lily and Nina. And whoever added a swan to Nina’s collection of stuffed animals deserves special praise.
But it’s not that Nina is fearful; it’s that she lives with a mother so controlling that the only food we see Nina eating is literally licked off her mother’s fingers. It’s not that Nina has issues with her body; it’s that she feels there are things growing under her skin. It’s not that dancing is hard on Nina’s body; it’s that she self-harms. It’s not that Nina is paranoid; it’s that the paintings in her apartment follow her with her eyes. It’s not that Nina is frigid; it’s that she is a virgin (in her mid-20s, in New York) and that the sex she does have is not quite what it seems. It’s not that Nina sees things that aren’t there; it’s that the illusions cause her to attack others. It’s not that Aronofsky is making the point that his leading character is unstable; it’s that the character of Nina is punished so much that he has created a movie with a profound hatred of women.
Some critics have compared Black Swan to The Wrestler, but The Wrestler sympathised with and pitied Ram. There is not a shred of sympathy for Nina in Black Swan. We are shown a woman who has pushed herself so far in her quest for perfection that she is lost any sense of herself as separate from that quest. Rourke’s character in The Wrestler disliked his life outside of the wrestling ring, but at least he had one. Other critics have compared Black Swan to Showgirls, which is closer to the mark, but with the major exception that Showgirls was actually terribly fond of its women. Never mind how badly it was acted; as a viewer you wanted Nomi to achieve her dream of dancing topless in a floorshow. She also had friends, a sex life, and her trusty switchblade. Outside of the ballet, Nina has nothing at all.
Certainly Black Swan has achieved a critical storm of discussion, and there is no one who doubts that Natalie Portman fully deserves her Golden Globe. But the discussion has centred on whether the film is intended as straight-up horror, or perhaps camp. But things which are camp tend to wink at the audience, and things which are horror tend to make a show of manipulating audience reactions. The script, by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin, does neither. All it is interested in doing is punishing Nina. She has sacrificed her whole life to her quest for ballet perfection? The only time she smiles is when she is drunk? She is afraid of her body and her sexuality? She is ambitious but pushed relentlessly by everyone for not being ambitious enough? She must be punished, punished, punished.
Since 1948’s The Red Shoes, which made a star of Moira Shearer as a prima ballerina who must choose between her career and marriage, ballet on film has been shorthand for examining women’s choices. But in that movie, the situations Shearer found herself in were due to being forced to make an impossible choice. Neither of the men she loved was acting from malice, but instead from the conviction that what they themselves wanted was best for her. The tragedy of that film was that Shearer’s character was unable to choose, and the difference between The Red Shoes and Black Swan is that no one blamed Shearer’s character for wanting to make a choice.
What Black Swan does instead is make it unclear whether the pressure Nina is under is self-inflicted. By blurring all lines between reality and hallucination, there is no escape for Nina, no one who can help, no kindness, no freedom, no possibility of making another choice. And by heaping so much pressure onto the slim shoulders of its heroine, Black Swan ends up being nothing more than the story of some men who loathe the heroine they created and her attempts at perfection. It’s trash – a statement not to be made lightly. Classy, gleaming, award-winning, well-packaged trash, but trash all the same.