Natalie Portman plays a ballerina who seems to have a problem separating art from life. She lives with her controlling mother who infantilises her. She is in line for the starring role as the ‘Black Swan’ in Swan Lake. The boss is Vincent Cassell, he is strict and demands real perfection in loss of control in his dancers. He also makes sexual advances to Portman. She fends him off. Portman also has a rival in Mila Kunis, she also has lesbian fantasies about Kunis. Portman gets more unhinged, she messes with her skin and hallucinates feathers which she must pluck out. At one stage she thinks she grows swan’s legs (quite). She arrives for the big performance and stabs herself thinking she has killed herself. She gives the dance of her life.
This is a film by Aronofsky who made The Wrestler. Like in that film there is a fascination with the flesh, a sadistic and masochistic interest in torturing it and finding out what it will endure. Ballerina athleticism seems to be as brutal and demanding as rugby or any high alpha sport. It demands a great deal in energy, skill, and psychological toughness, and it certainly feels sweaty and workout tough as a film. We get hand held close ups which enhance the hallucinatory quality of Portman’s vision, so that the actual hallucinations can seem almost tame. The metamorphosis into swan’s legs is the main ridiculous failing. You often wonder where the boundary between dream images and watching life actually exists, so I had the feeling I was on an Inception rollercoaster and that there might be a twist at the end, but it’s no surprise to learn that this dancer is off her rocker anyway. There is that same hectic paranoid feeling you get with the obsessive and haunted victims in other films.
This film has been criticised for its unrealistic depiction of ballet, that the bodily movements are not true to ballet. I don’t think this matters, though it makes you wonder why Portman bothered to learn ballet for a year. It’s unimportant because it’s a ballet inspired fairy story in itself. It’s about a struggling artist living with a panto-wicked mother and surrounded by wicked rivals. Ballet is the symbol of Portman’s artistic struggle. We wouldn’t expect to learn about piloting a plane from a film about pilots, so why do we expect authenticity in a film about a ballet dancer.
Obviously it will be compared with Powell and Pressburgers’ The Red Shoes. That film was about the struggle of a ballerina trying to balance the patriarchal demands of marriage with her devotion to art. Her inability to resolve this led to self-destruction . The ballet she danced was Anderson’s The Red Shoes, which is a story about the devil’s gift of artistic obsession and perfection (the Church tries to fight this). In the Black Swan there is also a relationship between art and life, Portman finding the devilish dark side of a ferociously released Id. Her sexuality is based on a fantasy that would be regarded as transgressive as far as her mother was concerned, but is all part of the internal drama. Like in Inception you could get to feel that in the end you don’t care where the boundaries are, she’s in need of medication and that’s that.
I think this film handles her artistic struggles really well in spite of the occasional descent into kitschy silliness. There are no bohemian familiarities here, no Ken Russell obvious camp which obligatorily made it’s entrances in other films about dancers, be they Nijinsky or Isadora Duncan. There is amazingly no self-conscious artiness in this film, they were just professionals getting on with their craft and doing the best they can. In mid 20th century films we got used to Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave and co being very arty. This may be hard for young people to appreciate, but it is a real pleasure not having that kind of florid pretence. Nobody is precious, so you can forgive the film its melodramatic lapses. Aronofsky obviously thinks the surface glamour of ballet covers an art as vigorous and brutal as wrestling. The sweaty claustrophobia conveys this.
Vincent Cassell plays the mentor like Anton Walbroke in The Red Shoes. Here his martinet mania is tangled in sexuality which is superficially predatory, but seems to factor into Portman’s metamorphosis into a darker self. Cassell’s mentorship may, or may not, drive her to madness but this is as dangerous and irrevocable as putting on Hans Anderson’s red shoes.