Why the horrors of ‘Black Swan,’ a fable of New York women, do not instruct

A scene from 'Black Swan.' ()
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It's a fear familiar to the city's creative class: When you're young and have energy, ideas and looks, you lack the maturity and the power-base to make them meaningful; but by the time you've finally achieved those latter things, you've lost the energy. When is that perfect moment at which youth and energy and power collide, and you make something that's magic?

In Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky has chosen a relatively obscure field for a study of the phenomenon—the ballet—but he couldn't have chosen much of a better one.

The film is set in a not-quite New York. The company to which Nina, played by Natalie Portman, belongs goes unnamed, but it appears to inhabit the same Lincoln Center theater as New York City Ballet. The characters walk in the Lincoln Center plaza, but the interior of the theater both is and isn't like the Koch's, and there's a cocktail party that takes place in some alternate-universe Natural History Museum.

The city has the anonymous but freighted feel it has in noir films, in which it is the perpetual symbol of the highest highs and lowest lows of humanity: home of culture, crime, and decadence, the place where it is possible to make the Faustian bargains which allow great things to happen, but which lead inexorably to self-destruction.

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Nina is a brilliant young ballerina cast in the lead role of a new production of Swan Lake, the classic ballet of obsessive love, doublings, and magic. The "concept" of this Swan Lake production (presented in the film as unusual, though it's the normal staging) is that the ballet's two swan-girls—representing, respectively, white and black, innocence and experience—will be danced by a single ballerina.

Nina—naïve, fragile, and introverted—is a natural for Odette, the white swan, but she lacks, at least on the surface, the seductive, dangerous darkness of Odile, the black.

As the rehearsals proceed, this being an Aronofsky movie, she enters a vortex of paranoia and hallucination. The camera becomes an unreliable narrator, just as one's public is an unreliable source of self-judgment: the origin of Nina's phantom scratches and bleeding fingers is mysterious (the injuries might or might not be self-inflicted); a disconcertingly bohemian fellow dancer (Mila Kunis) may or may not be trying to steal her role; and her mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer herself, is either nurturing or psychotic, or perhaps both.

Nina's father isn't accounted for, allowing the company's artistic director (Vincent Cassel) to take his Freudian place as both authority and love interest, alternately berating and seducing her. With the camera constantly circling, Nina turns dizzy, suspicious, and desperate; there haven't been wide eyes so hopelessly in search of a friend since Mia Farrow's in Rosemary's Baby, a movie which is also about Faustian bargains, unreliable narrative and, finally, New York City—but which, as a movie "about" women, also succeeded in saying something savage and new for its time. (Remember the scene in which Rosemary tries to take counsel from her friends on the pain she is enduring in pregnancy, only to be stopped by her husband because, by a plot device, her taking the advice would actually ruin his career?)

In Swan Lake, the princess Odette has been transformed by a sorcerer into a swan who can be freed only by love, but a prince who makes the attempt to save her is tricked by the sorcerer into pledging himself to another girl, Odile, who is disguised as Odette. That Odette and Odile are danced by the same ballerina gives the ballet part of its haunting charge, and gives Aronofsky room to riff wildly on male fantasies of the fundamental dualism of women, who in this telling are all simultaneously, tantalizingly, both good and bad—opposites whose attraction for each other he shows with a lesbian sex scene.

The constant mirrors keep reminding us about the doubling theme—we get it!— and the infantilizing pinks of Nina's girlhood room are pushed overboard with armfuls of stuffed animals.

And the subtlety is further mottled by the other, even less subtle references here: There are generous helpings of inspiration from Carrie and Single White Female that yearn for the touch of Roman Polanski instead.

Black Swan, dreamily shot and vividly acted, aspires to the status of art film, but in fact, it's not really even a film about art: Though its rehearsal and performance scenes are hypnotic, it seems to have little to say about what dancing or creative production is actually like. It seems to be rather proud of the grimness of its account of what is generally perceived as a frilly, low-impact art form, but it repeats the theme of hundreds of movies about dancers and writers and composers: that artists start out as cold, repressed individuals who require "life"—in the form, almost invariably, of sex—to actualize their talent.

Where it succeeds is on the broader canvas: The darker aspect of the arts, and particularly of ballet. Black Swan's vision of ballet fixates on the art form's fascinated revulsion towards sexual maturation. Ballet dancers are required to remain girls—to maintain artificially girlish physiques—at the same time as they are expected to mature, to gradually present the emotions of an adult. Yet when dancers age into women, presumably able to invest their roles with real meaning, they can't do it anymore, and are cast aside. (Like the fading prima donna of the film, played by Winona Ryder, they are politely allowed to euphemize this as "retirement.") The periods in which physical and emotional maturity coincide—the "perfection" that Portman's Nina dies having achieved—are vanishingly brief, and for both Nina and Ryder's character, their endings are hysterically literalized as physical ruin and death.

In both the ballet and the film, playing the bad, impure girl leads to the good girl's destruction. The recurrent imagery of women being stabbed at and cut, bellowed at and obsessed over, might look like a distraction from the film's broader Faustian theme, but only in the sense that the bargain the ambitious make with New York is different for women than it is for men.

And here is where the comparison to Rosemary's Baby is unfair: Rosemary is not, and does not want to be, anything besides a devoted wife and mother. These womanly pursuits are hijacked by her husband in a literal deal with the devil. Black Swan, though, held the promise of a movie in which the female protagonist's ambitions are for herself, but it just re-proved the point: When men make Faustian bargains, women suffer; when women make Faustian bargains, women suffer. One is left wondering whether these touches of violence and rage directed at women are simply there to be plundered for their horror potential, or whether studies of women characters whose success is freighted with loss and deprivation will always be either "women's movies" or scary movies with a layer of sexual horror necessary to get an audience. With Black Swan, we get neither, really, but nor do we have something really new: that project, and the "real life" project it implies, remains to be done.