THE AUTHOR WALTER Dean Myers noted after seeing a production of Swan Lake with Erik Bruhn how significant a part the ever-present threat of violence played in Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, and in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, in which dancer Nina Sayers struggles to embody the qualities of both dimensions of the lead part, the same thing might said to be true.
An angelic Natalie Portman plays Nina, a fiercely dedicated but shy and passive ballerina at the New York City Ballet. Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), the current prima ballerina and darling of ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is to “retire”––that’s to say, not-so-politely asked to move on––which means there is a vacancy, and one that Nina and her fellow dancers would like to fill. Thomas, however, has reservations about Nina: she is, he says, the perfect White Swan; it’s her ability to play the White Swan’s evil counterpart, the Black Swan, that he has doubts about. Meanwhile, a new dancer has joined the corps. Lily (Mila Kunis), straight off the plane, so to speak, from San Francisco, is cheerful and reckless and fun––perfect, in other words, to play the Black Swan.
Black Swan is both a psychological thriller that draws on the doppelgänger motif of stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson and Dostoyevsky’s The Double and an allegory for the artist’s struggle for perfection, and these two threads happily co-exist without one ever overwhelming the other.
Black Swan is both a psychological thriller that draws on the doppelgänger motif of stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson and Dostoyevsky’s The Double and an allegory for the artist’s struggle for perfection, and these two threads happily co-exist without one ever overwhelming the other. What Aronofsky and writer Andres Heinz do so well is create conditions and characterise Nina in such a way as to allow these two things this to be the case. Nina is beautiful, artistic and athletic, but her commitment to the ballet is an inheritance from her overbearing mother Erica––played brilliantly by Barbara Hershey, incidentally––who at one stage makes a point of saying that if “I hadn’t taken you to each of your classes you would have been completely lost”. It’s a line that betrays Erica’s belief that she is to credit for Nina’s success, but one that also carries a grain of truth. The role of Erica in Nina’s life allows Nina to be at the same time as an élite ballet dancer sexually naive, vulnerable and susceptible (if not prone) to mental illness. In Beth and Veronica (Ksenia Solo) we see all the envy and aggression we might ordinarily expect of an artist and athlete with Nina’s level of ability and dedication.
Natalie Portman brings this walking and talking (and dancing) contradiction of qualities to life. Her performance as Nina is her best and one of the best of recent years. She exudes such fragility that you would not be too surprised if all of a sudden she shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.
Natalie Portman brings this walking and talking (and dancing) contradiction of qualities to life. Her performance as Nina is her best and one of the best of recent years. She exudes such fragility that you would not be too surprised if all of a sudden she shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. And you wouldn’t blame her either: every shot of Nina’s reflection in a mirror or pane of glass or water is a reminder that her very sense of identity is under attack. As much as the film belongs to Portman’s Nina, it is the kittenish Mila Kunis as Lily, determined, so to say, to unshackle Nina, and a brilliantly sinister, sexually aggressive and aristocratic-looking Vincent Cassel who play large parts in inducing this crisis. And that’s not to include the above-mentioned Barbara Hershey’s Erica, whose determination to infantilise her daughter (Nina’s room is a baby-pink nightmare of dolls and music boxes) can only end on way.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who worked with Aronofsky on The Fountain and Pi, creates an intimate and even claustrophobic sort of atmosphere that reflects Nina’s utter inability to get out of her own head, while the loud refrain from Tchaikovsky’s ballet threatens at all times to make your ears bleed, (which would, in fairness, be in keeping with the film’s abundant body horror.) As Thomas introduces his new production of Swan Lake in the opening ten minutes of the film, he acknowledges that the ballet has been “done to death, I know––but not like this.” Black Swan is somehow passionate, deranged and emphatic. It meditates on the obsessive nature of perfection while portraits scream at you from the walls. Like it’s main character, it’s nothing if not ambitious, and the result is spectacular.