As Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) has been gaining more momentum with audiences—rave reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and numerous Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Independent Spirit Award nominations—I’m starting to wonder if I’m the only one out there who thought it was trite. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Aronofsky’s work, and came to the theatre with an eagerness to love his new film. I tried and failed. There’s something about a thriller that naturally engages you, luring you deep into the action. The premise itself is interesting—that of an overworked ballerina whose paranoid nightmares seem to dance between the border of dream and reality. It reminds me of an episode of the original Twilight Zone entitled "Twenty-Two" (1961), in which a dancer named Liz Powell (Barbara Nichols)—hospitalized due to overwork and nervous fatigue—dreams about her own death. Rod Serling’s smooth, deep voice coos the introduction to the episode: “At this moment, we have just finished walking with her in a nightmare…The problem here is that both Miss Powell and you will reach a point where it will be difficult to decide which is reality and which is nightmare.” Yet, unlike this clever Twilight Zone episode, Aronofsky’s nightmarish representations of a dancer’s fears and hallucinations seem to amount to nothing more than what—I assume—would be the plot of a Gossip Girl episode.
Our protagonist, sweet and innocent Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), gets the lead role in a new production of the ballet Swan Lake, in lieu of former prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder). The artistic director of the ballet company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) plays the role of sexual predator capitalizing on his own power of that who is idolized by his young protégés. Portman’s character is paranoid that fellow dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), wants to steal both “her man” and her part, effectively becoming her and stealing from her all the she thinks she holds dear. This of course, is generally the plot of Swan Lake, a clever parallel. Nina becomes so engulfed in her character, that it eventually destroys her. Aronofsky portrays the extreme life of a ballet dancer—both the physical and psychological effects of intense training and dieting. According to Angela Dawson from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Aronofsky sees Black Swan as the companion piece to his Oscar-nominated film, The Wrestler (2008), in which he, yet again, portrays the underbelly of performance.
Perhaps what makes the film feel so trite is my own distance from the warped reality and the pressure of the ballet world. What’s worse, the film emphasizes negative stereotypes about women—the classic catty competitive femininity that seems so foreign to some women, yet is recognizable to many. In turn, the film also represents a negative perspective of female sexuality. Aronofsky, taking from the classic ballet Swan Lake, portrays Nina as all that encompasses the idea of the white swan, the one which is “good,” i.e. pure and virginal, and the one who falls victim to the black swan’s devilish trickery and overt sexuality. In the end, we discover that Lily’s “dark nature” is ultimately Nina’s own projections of herself. Ironically, while trying to show that our own characters are neither black nor white, but, rather, are a more complex amalgam of the two, Aronofsky tends to get trapped within classic archetypes of good versus evil. For the sake of drama, he discards the gray.
Moreover, the way in which he represents the struggle between “black and white” does not relate to anything that seems to truly matter. I feel as if I’m back in the clutches of high school jealousy—the kind that exists and torments girls that don’t really even know each other, let alone themselves. Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps this is what the ballet world is all about—perfectionism and obsessive compulsion gone terribly wrong; a world where women judge each other as potential competitors, instead of as allies. It’s a world that I have no desire to become a part of, even if just for an hour and forty minutes. Moreover, even the darker, more psychological aspects of the film tend to be streaming with pure shock-value scenes. For example, the film is riddled with traces of obsessive-compulsive behavior, such as scratching, picking, and tearing away at the skin which seems simply unnecessary. There is also a lesbian sex scene. As Portman recalls in an article in the New York Daily News, “I remember them being like, 'How do you get guys to a ballet movie? How do you get girls to a thriller? The answer is a lesbian scene. Everyone wants to see that.’” I’m not sure if she was joking or not about what, presumably, the producers were hoping to achieve with the scene. Nevertheless, these elements of shock value for the sake of drama, compounded with other aspects of the film, made me want to jump out of my theatre seat and go right back home to Netflix. That said, Portman did give an incredible performance that deserves all the accolades.
Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, discusses the significance of black swan events, or those events that cannot be predicted by logical means, but which have a considerable impact on our lives. Unfortunately, Aronofsky’s Black Swan is not one of those events. Although, I speak for myself, as Portman is now pregnant and engaged with Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Nevertheless, despite this little blip in Aronofsky’s canon, I look forward to seeing what his next film has to offer. In the end, one cannot entirely blame the direction and acting for bad writing.
Dance, Feminism, Psychology