You would never think that blood oozing out of a fingertip could be so unsettling, but it is in the psychosexual thriller Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler). In fact, the entire movie is unsettling.
All the old myths about the world of ballet dancers—insulated, all-consuming and competitive—come to vivid life in this over-the-top film. For example, when the artistic director of a New York City ballet company, Thomas Leroy, disparages his innocent protégé by saying, “I never see you lose yourself.” In the dressing room, dancers make catty remarks about the older principal dancer who is about to be given the boot: she could be my grandmother. In the background, an overbearing ballet mother hovers over her charge, having given up her own dance career to produce a daughter who will one day take her place on stage.
When Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces he is about to stage his new Swan Lake, the buzz is on. Who will he cast in the demanding double role as the innocent White Swan (who can only be released from the evil sorcerer Rothbart’s spell by marrying the Prince) as well as the White Swan’s nemesis, the conniving Black Swan? Our protégé, Nina (Natalie Portman) is delighted to learn that she is a candidate. As the vulnerable White Swan, she is perfect, but Leroy doubts that she has what is takes to deliver on the Black Swan.
After rehearsal, Leroy asks Nina, “Are you a virgin?”—a pointed reference to her inability to “lose” herself. When asked if she has a boyfriend, of course the answer is no. Living with her mother in a room full of pink wallpaper and stuffed animals, and spending night and day in the ballet studio, who has time for a love life?
Nina soon learns she has a rival from California, Lily. Leroy is impressed by the sexual heat Lily exudes, perfect for the Black Swan. More amused than jealous, Lily (Mina Kunis) pulls Nina out of the suffocating hold of her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) to give her a crash course in group sex, booze and drugs.
Nina is so delicate and vulnerable however, that the pressure of the ballet sets the stage for a gradual descent into madness and self-flagellation. She scratches the rash on her back, looks in horror at the blood oozing out of her finger tips, and before long, gore is spreading in ever-widening circles.
The action becomes ever more gruesome, as mirrors shatter, knives plunge into stomachs, toes become webbed feet, and eyes turn blood red. Is she hallucinating or is the destruction real? We are even fooled by the vivid sexual encounter between Nina and Lily. Amused when Nina confronts Lily the next day after an imaginary orgy, Lily laughs and asks “was I good?”
As a dancer, Portman comes across as fairly credible (with the tricky steps performed by her double, American Ballet Theatre principal Sara Lane), but as an actress, she has only one expression: alarm.
As her mother, Hershey offers the only real depth to the drama, although Kunis provides the right counterbalance as a free spirit to Portman’s repression.
It is impossible not to compare Black Swan with the classic ballet film of 1948, The Red Shoes. Like The Red Shoes, the insulated world of ballet leaves no room for a private life, and when one’s private life intrudes, nothing but disaster can result. But unlike The Red Shoes, Black Swan will surely keep mothers from subjecting their budding ballerinas to this gore.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill and Dance Magazine.