One woman: two roles, reflecting back and forth into oblivion in the mirrored walls of a dance studio. Performance does not cease when a ballerina pirouettes off stage, as director Darren Aronofsky and Black Swan’s handful of writers well know (nor does it when the cameras stop rolling, I suspect). The contemporary, psychologically thrilling adaptation of Swan Lake is a testament to the timelessness of the narrative, and to the perpetuity of fractured femininity and male inscriptive power.
The story is a well-known one — and methinks a dozen f-bombs and a much-hyped girl-on-girl scene will soon wrangle in the stragglers — but here goes: Transformed into a swan by the sorcerer Von Rothbart, Swan Lake’s innocent protagonist, Odette, still appears as a woman by moonlight. True love can break the spell, but alas, thwarted by Von Rothbart, her would-be prince mistakenly asks for the hand of Odile — Odette’s dark and beguiling lookalike.
Traditionally, the roles of “virginal” Odette and “lustful” Odile — the white and black swans — are performed by the same ballerina, and so it is in this film. “Which of you can embody both swans?” asks Thomas Leroy (Victor Cassel), artistic director of Black Swan’s New York ballet company, adding later: “It’s a hard fucking time to dance both.”
Nevertheless, his ballerinas want and compete for the role like Odette and Odile want and compete for their prince. In spite of her profoundly innocent nature, Natalie Portman’s angelic bulimic Nina convinces the tall, foreign, dubious Leroy that she is up to the challenge. Or more accurately, that she is hell-bent, in the tradition of nearly every primary (and, incidentally, male) Aronofsky character who has come before her, from Pi’s Max to The Wrestler’s Randy. In an effort to morph her into the black swan, Leroy urges Nina to loosen up, to “lose herself.” As her subjectivity — her “I,” if you will — divides, Nina begins to see herself everywhere, in Leroy’s destructive former muse (Winona Ryder) and also in her own fine-feathered frienemy, Lily (Mila Kunis). The transformation is at once empowering, oppressing, and traumatic to watch, particularly as it brings her to stand up to her smothering, vaguely incestuous mother (Barbara Hershey), who has kept Nina’s nails and wings clipped since childhood.
Much will be made of Portman’s performance in Black Swan, and it is breathtaking when first the camera pans from a tight shot of her pointing, twisting, dancing feet to her elongated neck and childlike face; she’s actually doing this. (Sarah Lane of the American Ballet Theatre occasionally doubles.) It’s not a stretch, though, to imagine Oscar-nominated Portman as an uptight, good-girl type, nor is it difficult to buy That ’70s Show star Kunis as her flirty, devil-may-care opposite number. The higbrow-lowbrow element of the casting matches the classy-trashy vibe of the film, and — like David Lynch — Aronofsky doesn’t seem to mind if the viewer muddles the line between the character and the actor to engage with the work in a larger context. Ryder certainly fits as the it-girl-turned-outsider
Black Swan is also “beautiful, actually” — as Nina describes Swan Lake’s tragic end to a pair of strangers — albeit in a conscientiously perverse kind of way, since the filmmakers, like Von Rothbart and Leroy, are males inscribing another layer of duality onto the female leads. Ballet is an ideal conduit for expressing the physical strain women put upon themselves (often to play the virgin/sex goddess dual role written even into our ideal body type: from the waist-down, a pre-adolescent girl; upwards, a voluptuous woman), among other things. In preparation for the role of Nina, Portman herself lost several pounds off her already willowy frame in a creepy life-imitates-art pursuit of perfection.
Aronofsky’s proclivity toward operatic direction helps Black Swan succeed where other ballet adaptations have failed. While too often other dance films show the action from an audience’s point-of-view, Black Swan’s camera, in the hands of Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique, bounces and twirls with and around the dancers. The tip-tapping of toe shoes combines with the ballerina’s rhythmic, whispery breaths to sound like flapping and fluttering, with Clint Mansell’s Tchaikovsky-informed score winding throughout. •
Dir. Darren Aronofsky; writ. Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman, John J. McLaughlin; feat. Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman