A repressed prima ballerina experiences frightening visions ahead of her dancing the lead in Swan Lake.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel
Review by Jon Kissel
With that large asterisk addressed, Black Swan quickly asserts itself as my kind of film. The opening dream sequence of Portman’s Nina Sayers dancing with a warlock from Swan Lake is flashy and exhilarating, giving the viewer their first taste of the nervy sound design that’s going to characterize the rest of the film, as well as the long takes of ballet that are going to make sure the viewer knows how much of the dancing that Portman herself is doing. This scene is followed by one of process, of Sayers getting up in the morning and flexing her creaky toes (body horror establishing itself quickly) and later going through the many esoteric steps necessary to break in a pair of ballet shoes. These will be followed by ever-more extreme transformations complemented by the film’s impeccable sound design. Aronofsky establishes his tone early, in that Black Swan is going to be dreamlike and operatic while also being intimate and detailed and sensual, such that we’ll hear every exhale and joint pop.
As the second half of his Perfection duo, Aronofsky puts all this physical drama in the distinctly female world of ballet, compared to the male world of professional wrestling. While both activities have participants from the opposite gender, they’re coded as feminine or masculine, and a very specific kind of each. Ballerinas need to be kept as tiny and girlish as possible, both for the purposes of being easier to lift and to put less pressure on their pirouetting toes and for the aesthetic tradition that ballet culture may very well insist on. Just as Aronofsky was interested in the nitty-gritty of Randy the Ram’s pursuit of a hairless and tanned and powerful body, the camera finds here the stretch of tendons and the flexing of muscles in pursuit of grace. Why else include the hypnotic scene of a choreographer practicing wing flaps with Nina, with the one-scene character’s wiry back to the camera as it ripples like a bag full of snakes? Even when Nina isn’t having a psychotic break that manifests as her body breaking down, there’s plenty of awe to found in the lengths the human body will go to in Black Swan.
The viewer sees in Mila Kunis’ Lily and other ballerinas that it’s possible to thrive in an art form that demands girlishness while still behaving like an adult woman. Nina Sayers is not able to do so. A strength of Black Swan is that there are many possible reasons for why Nina still dresses and lives like a tween, or younger, despite Portman being in her late 20’s at the time of filming. She could be taking the wrong lessons from her chosen profession. She could be so consumed with technique that she just doesn’t have the mental space to consider sex or independence. It’s possible that her mom is a sexually abusive predator and that has frozen Nina at the age when she was first abused (to be continued). She’s a psychologically rich character, and seeing her break away from her mother is the closest Black Swan has to a victory, even if Nina peaks developmentally at somewhere around 18 or 19 instead of her actual age.
That final transformation wouldn’t be so powerful if the film didn’t spend almost its entire running time telling Nina what she’s missing. This is most often put in the mouth of Tomas the ballet director, and in the physical performance of Kunis’ Lily. His instruction to Nina that perfection is more than technique is made manifest in the angel-wing tattooed Lily, who immediately makes clear what he’s talking about. She’s plainly less controlled than Nina, but if confronted with a choice between a ballet starring Nina and one starring Lily, no one would choose NIna. The difference in how Nina treats them is one area that might’ve been changed with more female influence. Despite Tomas’ sexual aggression, made doubly uncomfortable by the youthful way Nina behaves, she trusts him to the end, treating him as a brilliant gatekeeper with only the troupe’s best intentions at heart. Conversely, Lily is a figure of jealousy without reason, introduced as fun and kind in spite of Nina’s standoffishness. To the film’s credit, Lily isn’t catty or a saboteur, but Nina treats her as such. Some of that could be misdirected at herself, as Nina’s delusions include Lily as a sexual fantasy, or, least charitably, the writers might have nothing to say about female friendship.
Away from the studio, there’s only Barbara Hershey’s Erica in Nina’s life. Aronofsky provides enough backstory to sketch out Erica’s entire life, a former ballerina herself who never rose to Nina’s heights for whatever reason, though Erica’s pretty sure it’s because she got pregnant with Nina. She’s spent the entirety of her daughter’s life worshipping her and resenting her, and maybe something darker. There are some creepy vibes between Nina and her mother, exacerbated by when Aronofsky’s usual editor Andrew Weisblum chooses to cut. Nina induced to lick icing of Erica’s finger is bad enough. Is it accidental that that same finger is the one that develops a gruesome hangnail in the next scene? There’s another scene in the middle of the film where Erica stands in Nina’s doorway with her hair down and her blouse unbuttoned, asking if Nina’s ready. Ready for what? The topper is delusion Lily calling Nina ‘sweet girl’ after having fantasy sex with each other. Why would Nina’s subconscious put her mom’s pet name for her in the mouth of her imagined lover? All those suspicions having been voiced, Erica gets the purest, truest moment of the film in the final moments, when Nina looks out into the crowd and finds her with a look of concentrated admiration and pride on her face. That luminance doesn’t absolve her of perhaps molesting her daughter, but it knocks some time off her sentence.
Viewing Black Swan almost a decade after its release is most altered by the cultural events and trends of the last two years. Both Tomas’ treatment of Nina and the potentially exploitative nature of the film’s sexiness come into question. For a female-focused film with only men on the page and behind the camera, there’s a lot of girl-on-girl action here. Again to the film’s credit, it’s not lurid and there’s no actual nudity, and it’s not like a male director can’t empathetically capture female desire. It would just be nice if there was someone I could point to besides the cast who could’ve potentially weighed in, and then I wouldn’t have to make these allowances. On the Tomas front, Black Swan could be viewed as a Whiplash antecedent, where a mentor’s awful behavior prompts the student towards greatness. A more negative view frames it as sexual harrassment as motivator. If Nina doesn’t stab herself with a shard of glass and maybe die, Tomas would be patting himself on the back in praise of the brilliance of his coaxing that performance out of Nina by any means necessary, something an intense director would perhaps want to imagine about himself. Tomas’ big comeuppance otherwise is being aggressively kissed by Natalie Portman. I doubt a similar film made today would view him as instructive as Black Swan might view him. Tomas’ sin is seen to be his exchanging of Winona Ryder’s Beth for Nina, instead of that he’s involved with them at all.
The film that might’ve been notwithstanding, Black Swan remains as exhilarating and outrageous and disconcerting as it was in 2010. There are several instances where I had to go back and watch scenes over again, reveling in Aronofsky’s camerawork or Portman’s intensity or that face that Hershey makes at the end. The body horror combined with the capital-b Big acting make it fun to watch, praise that Aronofsky, with several un-rewatchable movies under his belt, does not typically earn. I’ll be reading some feminist critique between now and the podcast, but the power of Black Swan tamps down my doubts. This remains one of the best films of the decade. A