Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky) is an intense, dark, psychological thriller set in the rarefied world of New York ballet, and is as much about repressed sexuality as it is about sacrifice for art. Yes, it is melodramatic, yes, it is vulgar, and yes, at times, it is completely over the top. However, it is also genuinely terrifying, with every gothic convention bar the kitchen sink thrown in, and I loved it.
For anyone who doesn’t already know, Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a soloist who is chosen from the ranks of a New York ballet company to dance the lead in the company’s new production of Swan Lake. This is a dual role: Nina must play Odette, the virginal white swan, as well as Odile, the evil and carnal black swan. Until now, Nina has feared that she will never have a leading role. In common with many ballet dancers she is obsessed with perfection, both in body and technique; she works and starves herself to the bone. Nina lives with her mother (a wonderfully psychotic turn by Barbara Hershey), herself a ‘failed’ dancer, who coddles and infantilises her ‘sweet girl’, which does not help her already fragile state of mind. The company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) knows that the frigid, fragile Nina’s dancing is technically perfect and that she can easily dance the role of the white swan, he believes that she just needs to bring forth her repressed dark, sexual side in order to dance the role of the black swan – he wants her to metamorphose into her own evil twin. Thrown into the mix is the arrival of the über-sexy, free-spirited Lily (Mila Kunis) who Nina views, alternately, as a rival for both her role and her man (Nina has a crush on Thomas), and as her best friend; Lily is also, at times, the true object of Nina’s desire. Under the pressure of it all Nina begins to break down and disintegrate.
Consumed by her struggle to find a dark side to her performance and psyche, we see Nina constantly moving through the dark labyrinthine corridors of both her apartment and ballet studio, via the claustrophobic underpasses and subways that link them, picking away at her fingertips and scratching her shoulder blades. The camera is constantly at her back or in front of her, moving with her, and there is not a scene in the movie in which Nina does not appear. Everything is viewed from her unreliable perspective and we constantly question everything. Is her mother as psychotic as she seems, or is she worried and anxious for Nina? Is Lily a rival or a true friend? What is the nature of Leroy’s interest in Nina: lecherous wolf, or brilliant director trying to coax out an ‘honest’ performance? Is there ever any true danger, or is the menace, threat and melodrama just a figment of Nina’s imagination? Mirrors and reflections abound as Nina is shown scrutinising her appearance in mirrors at home and in the studio, as well as in the reflections of the subway windows. As her psyche begins to fracture, so her reflections begin to act independently of her in some genuinely scary moments; however the best of these for me is not one of the more obvious ‘shock-horror’ occurrences, of which there are many, but the one in which her reflection simply does one extra pirouette – and we begin to wonder which part of Nina’s psyche is truly in control of her body.
Nina is mirrored everywhere in this film, and there are more doubles than you can shake a stick at: Lily, who looks very like her and who, appropriately, Leroy casts as Nina’s ‘alternate’ (ballet-speak for stand-in or understudy); her own failed-dancer mother who sits at home in a tightly wound ballet-bun painting pictures of Nina (or herself, we are not quite sure); Beth McIntyre, a former principal ballerina who has been put out to pasture (a great cameo from a superbly black-eyed Winona Ryder); every other female dancer in the company (the boys in the nightclub tell Nina and Lily that all ballet dancers look alike); and even, at one point, a passer-by in the underpass. Nina loses all sense of self as she searches for her ‘other side’, and is doubled with every female character in the film, right down to a stranger on the street. At times this is done with such clever subliminal flashes that you wonder who or what you have just seen.
Nina’s paranoia permeates the film, and some of the most disturbing scenes portray a dancer’s normal physical suffering sliding into body horror. Nina is bulimic and her shoulder blades protrude dreadfully, developing a rash from which will sprout the feathered wings of the black swan (or do they?); her feet are bruised and damaged from her punishing regime, and she sees them as becoming webbed; at one point her legs appear to break and reset in the manner of a bird; her eyes become so bloodshot that they become the red eyes of the black swan. These fantastical scenes of body horror are neatly juxtaposed with the real: Mommy Dearest taking the nail scissors to Nina’s nervous, scratching fingers is genuinely wince-inducing, as is the scene when Nina cuts her own fingernails in a fervour. Then there is the ominous shutting of the toilet door which signifies Nina’s need to vomit in order to maintain her tiny (and bird-like) frame. And although the subdued and quiet scene in which Nina is receiving intensive physiotherapy contains no real horror, I found it to be one of the most disquieting.
Nina’s breakdown is subconsciously layered both underneath and throughout the movie, and is reflected by the dancing which is beautifully filmed. The dancing starts off controlled and ‘perfect’, then gradually pirouettes away from reality; when the black swan of Nina’s psyche is given visual, cinematic expression, it is a truly wonderful moment, and drives the film towards a breath-taking climax.
Colour, too, is well used in the film: the black and white of the swans, the socialites’ evening wear, and Thomas’s apartment is beautifully realised, serving as a backdrop to emphasise the move from baby pink to blood red.
Quite by chance I came across BBC’s ‘Film 2011’ programme the other night and found the film critic Danny Leigh summarily dismissing Black Swan as ‘Flashdance with piercings’, at which point I choked on my coffee (along with co-presenter Claudia Winkleman). As far as I can recall, no-one suffers much for their art in Flashdance – a feel-good movie from the early 1980s – of course, I am well aware that Leigh was being deliberately contentious (reminding me why I never watch these programmes). However, a movie Black Swan did remind me of is Carlos Saura’s subtle and low-key 1985 film Carmen, in which a choreographer is searching for someone to play the lead in his new dance work: a flamenco version of Carmen. He finds a young dancer, herself named Carmen (more uncanny doubling), whose skills are unrefined but whose wildcard spirit is perfect for the gypsy heroine who inspires lust and jealousy in a soldier. As Carmen is put through her paces in rehearsal, the choreographer falls in love with her, but their affair begins to fall apart as the dancer Carmen’s true character is slowly revealed to be the double of the titular Carmen: she is a liar and a cheat. The lines between passionate illusion and real life become increasingly entwined as the off-stage affair and the choreographed rehearsals become inseparable; as in Black Swan the viewer is never entirely sure what is real and what is not. The thump, thump, thumping of the ballet company’s bloc shoes in Black Swan immediately recalled to my mind the beating tattoo of the flamenco company’s hard shoes in Carmen, and indeed, some of the lines are similar, not to say identical, but we will allow for cliché. So, if you are interested in psychological dance dramas (we are a small group I know) and you feel that the excesses of Black Swan are not for you, then you should give Carmen a go. However, if, like me, you like your gothic camp, excessive and frightening, then I urge you to get along to Black Swan. Claudia Winkleman, in response to Danny Leigh, said that Black Swan was a ‘train you had to commit to getting on’, and I’m with Claudia on this one.
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