Ballet has always been a hard cultural sell. Like opera, the way it has been packaged by the cultural hierarchy mean it has been exclusive, expensive and elitist; out of reach of the majority. What makes the reception of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan so interesting is that everyone’s been talking about it, even people who are unlikely to ever see a ballet have been getting caught up in the pre-Oscars hype (and there has been a lot) getting excited about a movie, and actually going to the cinema. Whether this results in an upturn in those same movie-goers upgrading their bucket of popcorn £10 cinema ticket for a cocktail dress and £150 ticket remains to be seen.
Aronofsky is best-known for rejuvenating Mickey Rourke’s flaccid career with 2008’s The Wrestler and 2000’s brutal Requiem for a Dream, the unforgettable adaptation of Hubert Selby Junior’s book of the same name. Whilst the director himself has claimed Black Swan, is a companion piece toThe Wrestler, the bleak mood, pessimism and claustrophobic feeling seems to make the earlier film an equally fitting bedfellow.
Nina, played with enough impressive histrionics by Natalie Portman to make her a shoe-in for an Oscar, is a technically gifted, yet emotionally vulnerable ballet dancer, over-protected by her domineering mother, herself a failed dancer. Nina gets the career break she has, literally, been dreaming of, the lead role in Swan Lake, cast by Vincent Cassel’s enigmatic producer Thomas. Nina’s role demands she plays the role of both the virginal White Swan, and the Black Swan, her sensuous negative. Whilst Thomas has no doubts about Nina’s suitability for the former part, he takes some convincing for the second, cajoling her to feel it, live it at every opportunity. Nina’s casting inevitably ruffles as few feathers (sorry), with the company’s previous prima ballerina, played by an almost unrecognisable Winona Ryder, making a suicide attempt and the remainder of the female company treating her with the distance and contempt that pack animals can. The new production also coincides with the arrival of Lily, herself a negative of Nina, sensuous, yet technically limited. But as Thomas says, she isn’t “faking it”.
Black Swan is quite explicitly a film about mental illness, bringing the ambition, neuroses, and jealousy of the classical dance world to the big screen. Whilst Nina prepares for her debut in the leading role, her rehearsals are marked by not just her own nerves, but by a rapid decline into mental collapse. The clues are there at the start of the film, she appears to be self harming, she is seems to be suffering from an eating disorder. Things get worse as curtain up draws closer, Thomas’ concerns about her suitability for the role result in her reality starting to decompose, there are hallucinations, and constant confusions between herself and Lily. There is an unsatisfying ambiguity here, the audience is frequently left to speculate if there is a supernatural element to the story, or if we are witnessing a young woman’s mental collapse, rather unsympathetically within the framework of particularly un-subtle horror flick.
Whilst the ‘is it really happening, or is she losing her mind’ question is clearly set to be the film’s big talking point, the way in which Aronofsky treats the original Swan Lake text is also interesting. Any ballet buffs looking for a re-interpretation of the classic tale will be disappointed, Black Swan owes about as much to Swan Lake as Fatal Attraction does to Madame Butterfly in terms of faithfulness to the source material.
That said, the points of divergence between the film, and the ballet, however, are revealing and offers an alternative way of looking at the film. The classicSwan Lake cast includes Odette, the White Swan, Odile, the Black Swan, the shadowy van Rothbart and the ballet’s hero, Siegfried. Whilst the swan roles are clearly reflected in Black Swan, via Nina and Lily respectively and van Rothbart, the evil wizard who has a predilection for turning young women into half-swan hybrids is clearly Cassel’s Thomas, the absence of an obvious replacement for the hero is troubling. In the ballet, Sigfried falls in love with Nina and, depending on which version you see he is ultimately able, or not, to break the curse that keeps her trapped inside the body of a swan. This absence of any such redeeming figure from the film is symptomatic of its overall bleakness.
It doesn’t stop there. The father is remarkably absent from her family home, even when her birth is alluded to, he is not even referred to. This is telling. In the place of a father, Nina has an over-bearing, herself apparently psychotic (à la Kathy Bates in Misery), both hyper-supportive and intensely resentful of her daughters’ success. Freud would have had a field day if Nina had turned up on his couch, her stunted emotional development and strangely sexually-charged relationship with her mother casts her as suffering from a warped, unresolved Electra complex and the repressed emotional baggage that goes with it. Most worryingly for Nina, and this is arguably a hugely important factor in her eventual psychological breakdown, the complete absence of a father figure means this is ultimately something she cannot resolve. The only slight hope would seem to be the Lothario Thomas, who is ultimately, and rightly only concerned with the success of the show, the shareholders, the investors rather than her development or even artistic success. Indeed this complete lack of redemptive potential could be precisely what this film is really about, putting Nina on exactly the same level as the junky victims ofRequiem for a Dream.
In this way, Aronofsky’s Black Swan casts a bleak picture, not only of the world of ballet, but also of the women in the film, unable to function outside of a patriarchal environment who degenerate into mental illness, lesbianism and self-harm in the absence of a paternal force. It isn’t a subtle film, it is too garish, too bold, too full of the clichés of the Hollywood psychological thriller to be a masterpiece. As a brash, entertaining piece of cinema it works, but scratch too far beneath the service and you’ll how the overall message is potentially to be more disturbing that it initially appears.