During moments of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, you’ll find yourself repulsed, disturbed, and aroused, sometimes in the same scene. Similar to Gene Wilder’s famous boat ride scene as Willy Wonka, Aronofsky steers us down his own Styx River, scaring the shit out of us along the way. The film is a juxtaposition of genres, camp, horror, noir, which by the end, have fused into an elegy of macabre proportions.
Taking cues from Repulsion, The Yellow Wallpaper, and House of Mirth, Aronofsky uses Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as the milieu for his female protagonist to dance her swan song into insanity. As the film’s lead, Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers with total abandonment and gives the type of performance that wins Oscars and changes the course of women’s roles onscreen.
Nina has just been chosen by her dance company’s director, Thomas Leroy (played by Vincent Cassel) to replace Beth Macintyre, (Winona Ryder) who has lost her place onstage and in Vincent’s bed. As soon as it seems that Nina has won the role of a lifetime, Lily, (Mila Kunis) a devil in a blue tutu, appears as her doppelganger and understudy. Already the archetypal White Swan, Nina is encouraged by Thomas to explore her darkside in order play the other have of the role, the Black Swan. The grimy subways and backstreets of Manhattan are a modern take on T.S.Eliot’s “Wasteland”. The film works establishing Nina’s environment as a gothic Gotham.
Through the constant appearance of mirrors, we see the terrifying reflections and hidden refractions of Nina’s persona. Once Lily turns her androgynous advances towards Nina it’s understood that the two girls represent the Ying and Yang of a singular ego. With much success, Aronofsky dances with ideas from both Aristotle and psychiatrist Carl Jung. Binary oppositions of black and white, good and bad, anima and animus are apparent in the character’s personality and clothing colors.
Failing, are the dancing sequences that expose a lack of empathy with ballet in which Aronofsky drowns Tchaikovsky’s vision with his own. Adding insult to injury, the choreography scenes are filmed too tightly, robbing them of their buoyancy. The 1977 film Turning Point, is an excellent example of a film that lets the dancing take center stage when needed.
Nina’s apartment (more like Ibsen’s dollhouse) that she shares with her mother, (Barbara Hershey) proves to be a better stage for the tight roaming shots that illustrate Nina’s taut anxiety. Hershey, resembling a cross between Gollum and a Jill Sander model, plays a mother whose past dancing failures fuel her vicarious micromanaging.
Work proves to be even less of a haven for Nina. The dancer’s behavior backstage mirrors the hedonistic antics of Jersey Shore. The catty company is a zoo of animal instincts, screwing over, and under, anyone it takes to reach stardom. With nowhere to turn, and losing her grip on reality, Nina’s self mutilation, demonic hallucinations and dark metamorphosis have become irreversible.
For all the female-centrism of the film, the presentation of it’s sexual politics fumbles in the hands of a male director. The film’s graphic sex scenes are charged with so much self-aware eroticism that they can’t help but veer into camp. But, as noted in philosopher Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp”, Swan Lake is already the de-facto camp ballet.
So, the more ambiguous charge is whether Aronofsky was aware that during his mediation on doppelgangers, he charged himself as the architect of Nina’s madness. Thomas is to Aronofsky, as Joe Gideon was to Bob Fosse in All That Jazz, and Guido Anselmi was to Federico Fellini in 8 & ½. The fact that both men are instructing, directing, and exposing Nina in directions that are either nurturing or exploitive, the similarities can’t help but be made between the two men in charge of the proceedings. Whether Svengali or savior, Nina needed Thomas, and Lily, to awaken in her the passion needed for the dual roles.
In interviews, Aronofsky has stated that “Black Swan” is meant as a companion piece to his other film, “The Wrestler”. By the time Nina has hurled herself past the breaking point, she is much like the Greek myth of Leda. She has been raped by the very swan that she worshipped.