My sister grew up a dancer. When I went off to soccer practice, she put on her pink leotard and mom dragged her to a dance studio. I remember my sister’s love of dance stopping short at the fantasy when she was younger. She loved the swans and the princesses and the frilly tutus and the romantic French words that we only ever heard around ballet class, but she wasn’t dedicated to her toe shoes. By the time she had graduated from high school, the battered and worn ballet slippers were hung artistically in a bunch by her closet door, but she had moved on to jazz, hip hop, and modern–the easier dance disciplines.
Something about the art of ballet is cruel by design. Tiny feet crammed into harsh, tiny shoes attached to stick figure girls who peak before they are old enough to have lived drive the form forward. The girls all work and stretch and starve and strain to be the swan but they are usually forced to be happy with the chorus. Then all of the women take a back seat when a man explodes on to the stage in leaps and the ballet world worships at the feet of the unique men who toss the same-faced ballerinas up in the air. Each generation of dancers appears to take out the pain and frustration of their training on the next. While piano teachers are notorious for complaining about posture and nuns are reviled for slapping knuckles with rulers, ballet instructors and choreographers might occupy the special place in hell reserved for the mentors who abuse their pupils, favor some while discarding others, and look the other way as their charges destroy themselves to be perfect.
This is all of the bias I had going into Black Swan and it would appear that Darren Aronofsky sees the ballet world with the same kind of lens. When ballet is perfectly beautiful, that grace comes with a horrible price. While I don’t think that the film is meant to be an indictment of the ballet culture, the ballet world is a natural backdrop for another of Aronofsky’s bleak tales of addiction and obsession. I’m not surprised that he doesn’t focus on the happy stories of the dancers who enjoy teaching children to plie for their parents–he’s not a man known for making ‘up’ movies–but I am surprised at how perfectly Swan Lake played into his sensibilities.
From Pi forward, each of Aronofsky’s films has dealt with some kind of obsessive behavior. To a cynic, it might even look like he is making the same movie over and over again, expressing his own obsession with this topic by never quite nailing it in his work. Pi and The Fountain ended peacefully, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler less so, and Black Swan works on the darker side of that spectrum. But while there is a common thread to these films, they are not the same story and there’s something to admire about each of them. Pi was perfectly claustrophobic while The Fountain was sweeping and operatic. The Wrestler was perhaps a more intimate character study than anyone expected. Black Swan combines almost all of that into a single film.
Natalie Portman is stunning as Nina. She has a scene on the phone with her mom that is a staggering piece of acting. For 95% of the entire film she embodies the fragile, closeted perfectionist that her choreographer tells her she must abandon. Then there’s that other 5% of the film where she transforms into the Black Swan and she becomes another person entirely. I’ve always had a hard time connecting with dance because dance instructors and choreographers tend to describe what they want in terms that have nothing to do with the act of moving. Most of the film was frustrating for me, because in scene after scene I could understand what the choreographer wanted from Nina emotionally but I had no idea what that would really look like. Then, in a bombastic scene in Swan Lake, it all became perfectly clear. For 90 seconds or so, Portman exuded the dark sexuality and passion and dominance that her character required and I could see the change in her face and her arms and her back. Portman gives one of the greatest dual character performances that I’ve ever seen and while I understand why there isn’t more of her black swan in the film, it’s a shame that there’s not.
Black Swan works with creepy confined spaces as well as it does with a full stage production of Swan Lake. The surrounding characters all seem familiar and perhaps a little less than fully-formed, but they all work to push Portman’s performance to the forefront. Clint Mansell’s music is less of a character in Black Swan than in some of Aronofsky’s other pictures, but that is due to the jarring sound cues that treat surprises and shifts in perspective like jolts in a horror film. It was difficult for me to find the film’s moral compass since the story is told from the unreliable perspective of Nina’s deteriorating mind. At times, her mother and fellow dancers all seem sympathetic and at other times, downright evil. If we are supposed to believe her choreographer, it would seem that a little sex is all that it takes to soften ballet’s chiseled edges. In the end, I don’t think that Aronofsky is interested in providing an answer so much as he is in exploring the lives of people like Nina.
Clearly, not every ballerina is a compulsive mess of ambition, self-doubt, and neuroses just as every ballet instructor is not a wicked witch and every choreographer isn’t out to sleep with his dancers. Black Swan could have been a film about a driven young woman in almost any profession, but the choice of top tier ballet affords the director the chance to induce toe-injury cringes and sweeping, euphoric ‘ahhhs’ in equal measure. My sister gave up ballet but pursued a career as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher and she still does all of that today–happily, and without any psychosis. Indeed Black Swan isn’t about how difficult or torturous ballet is; it’s about the extreme heights and depths that accompany those who are driven to be the best. I need to see the film again with the ending in mind to see if all of those expository scenes and time spent dragging other characters through the plot will feel less irksome. I suspect that the point of those scenes and those characters in them is to paint a clearer picture of Nina and to force the audience to focus in on Portman’s performance. With a performance that nuanced, the film is bound to benefit from repeat viewings and unlike Requiem, it doesn’t feel like a hard film to return to. Maybe next time I’ll take my sister to see it.