I have always suspected that, if you look for the black swan within yourself, it will end in tears, and now Darren Aronofsky has proved me right. It will end in tears, as well as bloody gashes, horrors glimpsed in mirrors, warped hallucinations of a sexual nature and breaking your mother’s hand in a door jamb. If you think you may have the black swan within you, just leave well alone. Go shopping. Play Scrabble. Clear out the hall cupboard, as you have been meaning to do for ages (I don’t think you can squeeze another thing in there, although, God bless you, you will keep trying). And if you don’t want to listen to me, then at least take this film as a warning. This is an intensely compelling film which you might well want to see, but you would not want to live it. It is horribly dark.
Black Swan is set in the world of ballet, which I always suspected wasn’t all pretty tutus and chignons, and now Aronofsky has proved me right on this, too. (What is it like always being right? Most gratifying.) Ballet is hard; physically hard. Ballet is bleeding toes and whimpering muscles and bones that go snap, crackle and pop. The film does not spare us any of this, just as it does not spare us the mental cost and, in particular, the mental cost to one ballerina, Nina.
Nina is played by Natalie Portman, who has already won a Golden Globe for her performance, and whose immersion in the role is so complete that even her neck veins act, throbbing and pulsing and straining when the rest of her is still. Nina is a young woman, but appears infantilised. Her body looks prepubescent. Her voice is high and tentative. She is always on the brink of tears. Her pink room is piled high with teddies and other soft toys.
She lives with her obsessively hovering mother (Barbara Hershey), who used to be a ballerina herself and attends to Nina’s career with a suffocating attention to detail. Is she living through her daughter? Or jealous of her? We never know, just as we never know why, when she takes Nina’s face in her hands and says ‘you sweet, sweet girl’, it is so spooky. It just is. What Aronofsky doesn’t tell us, we feel, and what we mostly feel is uneasy, right from the start. He keeps his camera close to Nina at all times, in the most stifling way.
Nina is consumed by ballet. It is what she does and who she is and nothing else matters. In particular, she dreams of being cast as Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Well, my dears, if there is another warning associated with this film it is this: be careful what you wish for. Nina is plucked from the corps and awarded the starring role by Thomas, the company’s French choreographer (Vincent Cassel), although not before he’s casually tossed aside Beth, the prima ballerina he now considers past her best (Beth is played by Winona Ryder; an apt if cruel piece of casting). Nina is perfect for the white swan, who is good and innocent and virginal, but the twin role of the black swan, who is sexual, villainous and a bit of a slut? Not so much.
As Thomas keeps telling her, she dances with technique, but not feeling. He instructs her to ‘lose yourself’ and pushes her harder and harder. He is manipulative, bullying, sexually intimidating. As the pressure builds up, Nina begins to fall apart, helped on her way by Lily (Mila Kunis), the newly arrived dancer who has villainous sensuality in spades and is now a dangerous rival. (Lily dances with her hair down, so must put out.)
Like Aronofsky’s previous film The Wrestler, this is about sacrificing everything for your ‘art’, whatever the price, and Nina pays with her sanity. She peels the skin from her finger as if it were a banana. Her sexuality, so long repressed, breaks free explosively. She confuses boundaries, loses her grip on reality. And the film handles both states — the real and what is only in Nina’s head — with the most daring flourishes, some of which may make you jump out of your seat. This is part horror, part thriller, part Freudian nightmare and not a pretty film, as I said, nor an easy watch, but it’s so unexpected and out there and passionate it keeps you with it and involved all the way. So I recommend the film, but not that you search for the black swan inside yourself. I’d steer well clear of that, particularly with your hall cupboard being what it is.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 22, 2011Tags: Aronofsky, Ballet, Black swan, Film, Golden globe, Natalie portman