Black Swan was a spectacular idea. This is not a movie about ballet—it is a ballet: Tchaikovsky’s evening-length Swan Lake transposed into a modern psychosexual thriller, an edgy cinematic re-make of a dance classic. The film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, spent years circling the cloistered world of ballet trying to find a way in: he watched dancers work and perform and talked to them about their art; he marveled at ballet’s uncanny mix of melodrama, camp, eroticism, and high art, and above all at its grueling physical demands. His leading lady, Natalie Portman, put herself through a strenuous training routine, exercising many hours a day and all but starving herself for over a year to achieve the muscular and lean look she thought she needed to portray a ballerina.
Aronofsky even had Tchaikovsky’s score taped by a full orchestra in a single session in an effort to capture the energy of a live performance, and then had it spiced and spliced with eerie echoes and teeth-clenching sound effects. He said he was inspired by the idea of a beautiful woman transformed by evil magic into a swan—a “were-swan,” as he saw it—but also by Dostoyevsky’s The Double, with its haunting collapse of fantasy and reality in a deranged mind. And if Aronofsky’s earlier films showed a disturbing obsession with extreme physical and psychological states, they also demonstrated his considerable skill and talent as a film-maker. Here, finally, was a serious director willing to stake a claim in the rarified world of classical dance and bring its most prized nineteenth-century treasure into the twenty-first century. And why not?
Expectations in the dance world were naturally high, and Aronofsky deserves credit for seeing that Swan Lake was a movie waiting to happen—and that ballet, with its belief in fantasy, magic, and physical transformation, is an ideal subject for film. And if ballet itself strikes many people today as too-pretty and old-fashioned—about “as lively as a crypt,” as the film critic Manohla Dargis put it—here was a chance to energize it. Black Swan is a huge success. The film recently hit number two in the country and it has propelled Aronofsky—previously considered an art-house director—into the world of box-office heavy-hitters. His last film, The Wrestler, brought in $26 million domestically; but Black Swan has already shot past $80 million and is expected to break the $100 million mark. The movie’s trailer has gone viral and the film—and its leading star—are the subject of gleeful parodies on late night television. Portman won the Golden Globe for Best Actress and an Oscar seems in sight. Not since The Red Shoes, in 1948, has a film of ballet been such a sensation.
For anyone who cares about the art of ballet, unfortunately, Black Swan is a crushing disappointment and a lost opportunity. It is a vision so drenched in lurid stereotypes and flamboyant clichés, so stripped of human possibility, so drunk with its own technique (mirrors!) and with violence and crass sex, that it leaves the viewer emotionally cold. Love, ambition, beauty, eroticism, and art are all reduced in Aronofsky’s overheated mind to the undeniable “ickyness” (as he puts it) of physical self-mutilation. Instead of opening a door, Aronofsky has locked us into a chilly and campy melodrama: a glamorous spectacle of self-immolation masquerading as art.
Aronofsky has said he wanted to title his movie Swan Lake (the marketing folks no doubt demurred), so it is worth recalling the story. The ballet tells of an innocent young girl trapped in the body of a white swan. Only true love can break the spell, but when the swan finally finds her prince, the sorcerer plays a cruel trick: he sends an imposter—a black swan—to seduce the prince and steal his love. One ballerina dances both the black and white swans (this is what interests Aronofsky): she is her own double, her own destroyer. Naturally the prince falls for the ruse, and declares his love for the imposter; devastated, the white swan jumps into the sea from a cliff and drowns; the prince follows and they find love in death. As the curtain falls, we see them reunited in heavenly embrace.
There is nothing authentic or sacred about this narrative, which has changed many times since the ballet’s premiere at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 1877. Indeed, back then the ballet was much darker than it generally is today: there was a raging storm (this music was later cut) and the lovers were never reconciled. There was no double suicide and no reunion in the sky—instead the anguished lovers were grimly subsumed by the waves and drowned. The version most commonly performed today derives from the ballet choreographed in 1895 by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in St. Petersburg after Tchaikovsky’s death, in which both the music and the story were cut, altered, revised. Yet whatever the version—and there have been many—Swan Lake has always been at heart a tragedy in a high Romantic style: a story of love and betrayal, good and evil.
Aronofsky cleverly transposes this basic story and the music onto a modern-day New York City ballet company, which is rehearsing a new, gritty and realist version of Swan Lake. This ballet within a ballet conceit is seductive and allows Aronofsky to show us how the walls separating fantasy and reality crack and eventually crumble in Nina’s hyperbolic mind and art. The opening (and best) scene of the film shows a lone white-tutued ballerina dancing in a cone of light. She is performing on stage, but she is also far away, engrossed in her own private fantasy. Suddenly, from nowhere, she is attacked by a demon-like man who becomes the thrashing evil and winged sorcerer Rothbart: it is beautiful, frightening, and thrillingly theatrical.
But any resemblance between Black Swan and Swan Lake—or between Black Swan and ballet—ends here. Aronofsky’s swan is the brittle and obsessive Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a cold and virginal perfectionist who masters the white swan but has no idea how to become the black. In search of her darker self, she careens into a violent, psychotic fantasy and Aronofsky edges us into her troubled mind as she descends into madness and a frenzy of self-mutilation. This is not a dream, much less a love affair: it is a morbid paranoid fantasy, reminiscent of Repulsion. Nina does not love or care about anyone but herself, and she cannot feel anything but physical sensation and (preferably) pain: love is masturbation, evil is mutilation, and tragedy is her own self-imposed alienation. She dies alone.
We feel nothing because she feels nothing. Nina is an inert stereotype, a predictable composite of every possible dark side of the dance world, but magnified: she is a bulimic, child-like, inarticulate shell of a person, desperately ambitious, vengeful, unworldly, and a bit stupid. But if you think Nina is frigid and limited, look at the world that Aronofsky has built for her. The theater in which she performs is a dark cement underground, and Nina scurries nervously around its hallways and cowers rat-like in its corners, compulsively reviewing her ballet steps. She travels to and from this prison in claustrophobic subway cars trapped with lecherous, masturbating men; and her apartment is a maze of narrow corridors, run down, with loud security locks and inhabited by her dour, pinched stage-mother who doesn’t want her “sweet girl” to grow up. Nina’s “prince” is an egotistical, exploitative ballet master who worries that his “white” Nina doesn’t have it in her to become the alluring ‘black’ swan.
This conflict between white and black swan, virgin and whore, Apollo and Dionysius, (and so on), lies at the heart of Aronofsky’s story—and Nina’s demise. Here, too, we drown in cliché. The ballet master coaches Nina by giving her hot kisses, telling her to “lose herself” (“perfection is also about letting go”) and suggesting she “go home and touch yourself.” Poor Nina, ever obedient, masturbates and hangs out with her rival and creepy black-swan double, the tattooed (she’s from California), loose, and sexy Lily (Mila Kunis): they drink, they do drugs, they have sex—with guys from a club and then (for our soft-porn delectation) with each other. The next day, of course, Nina has an artistic breakthrough. It doesn’t help that in real life Portman has been telling the media that “being an artist” means “finding your own pleasure.”
In the end, Nina finds her inner black swan: in a state of hysterical (hunger-induced?) delirium, and hopelessly imprisoned in her own bloodied fantasies, Nina loses touch with reality—and delivers a sensational performance. The cost, as we know, must be high: in her deluded state she thinks that she is murdering her rival by plunging a large shard of glass into her gut (“it’s my turn now”) but in fact she is stabbing herself. Still, she dances on, and when she jumps from the cliff at the end of the show she is met with wild applause and her fellow-dancers crowd in to congratulate her on her impressive performance. Before she loses consciousness—and just as we notice that her beautiful white tutu is soaked in blood—she manages to say, “I felt it… it was perfect.” White out.
Dancers have understandably taken offense at Aronofsky’s dark vision of their world. If it was really like this, why would any one want to dance? Where is the poetry, the joy, the desire—the fun—of theatrical life? They are right that Aronofsky has ignored a crucial dimension of ballet, and of Swan Lake. The white swan is not “about” perfection and technical control. She is a woman emboldened by love and devotion and yearning. The black swan is not a vixen of unbridled sex and violence. She is eroticism and seduction—which require control and skill, not “letting go.” In ballet you have to go through Apollo to get to Dionysius, and this requires physical work, dancing, and more dancing. Having sex is not enough.
Black Swan does not portray what it is like to be a dancer; it portrays what it is like to be Darren Aronofsky. We know this from his past films, all of which show a taste for gratuitous violence and people caught in accelerating cycles of physical and psychological self-destruction. His style is as compulsive as his subjects: abrupt jump-shots, awkward close-ups, split-screens, off-kilter perspectives, and a toolbox of horror film effects designed to make your skin crawl. Pi was a grainy, low budget start-up about a mathematician driven to insanity in the harsh inner chambers of his own brain; Requiem for a Dream (his best film) told a powerful and unrelentingly brutal story of drug addiction and shattered dreams in lower middle class suburbia; The Wrestler was a gruesome if sentimental portrait of a bizarrely sadistic “sport.”
And so, for Aronofsky ballet is not an art at all: it is a blood-sport—channeled, as it were, through Mickey Rourke. Aronofsky has called Black Swan a companion piece to The Wrestler, and it is not hard to see why. Outsiders often see ballet in this “oh my God how can you do that to your body” way, and Aronofsky gives us admiring machismo close-ups of dancers breaking in shoes and cracking rosin, taping bruised feet, standing on pointe, and nursing bloody toenails. He admires the stoic determination of dancers, and the punishment they are willing to endure in order to dance.
It is certainly true that dancers routinely live with pain, and that the extreme physical demands of the art make its pristine beauty all the more astonishing. But Aronofsky wants more. Nina does not just tape her toes, she pulls obsessively at her fingernails and cuticles and at one point tears the skin back to the knuckle, bleeding. When Nina’s predecessor, an embittered over-the-hill ballerina, has an “accident” (she is another destructive black swan type), Aronofsky goes Grand Guignol and dotes on her gruesome wounds and leg pins, and Nina imagines this washed up beauty stabbing herself in the face as blood spurts out in profusion. When Nina’s mind finally unhinges and she “becomes” the swan, she excruciatingly peels the skin of her webbed toes apart in order to force her feet into toe shoes; and sharp, prickly black wings break through her skin (at first she pulls them out) as she moves into an ecstasy of pain and physical transformation (at this point, remember, she also has the glass in her gut).
What about the ecstasy of dancing? For a film that says it is a ballet, Black Swan has very little dancing. Portman is a fine actress, but she is not a dancer (she is actually too thin), and Aronofsky compensates at every turn with fast hand-held camera work that swirls around the studio and stage creating a dizzying effect but never letting our eyes light on even the briefest sequence of dance. With Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score Aronofsky could have made something tremendous, and he even hired the choreographer Benjamin Millepied to help him do so. But we only get snatches of dance amid the raunchy sex and horror, and even poor Tchaikovsky is so fragmented and embellished with scary noises that he comes across as a B-grade soundtrack.
Here the comparison with The Red Shoes is illuminating. It, too, is a ballet within a ballet, and it too is about an anguished and melodramatic collapse of life into art, with scary nightmares and touches of horror. The final scene—when the ballerina leaps to her death in front of a speeding train and we see her bloodied pink tights as she ekes out, “take off the red shoes”—has all of the gothic glamour that Aronofsky so admires. But Powell and Pressburger starred the beautiful young dancer Moira Shearer in their movie’s ballerina role and they gave her extended pure dance sequences—at one point she performs unbroken for nearly twenty minutes. Shearer’s impassioned dancing is what draws us into her agonized mind; and it is her dancing that gives the film its lasting emotional power and distinction. By contrast—and in spite of the hype about her training—Portman cannot dance. Even in the glimpses we get, her arms are weak and unconvincing, and her skeletal image evokes revulsion rather than aesthetic transfiguration. But then The Red Shoes came from an era when ballet really mattered, and shows us why. Black Swan comes from a time when we have almost forgotten why we should care about ballet.
What we are left with is not a ballet at all: Black Swan is a ballet without ballet, a gory pantomime spectacle in the tradition of vaudeville, music hall, or nineteenth-century French boulevard theaters, all of which delighted in taking ‘high art’ and bringing it low, siphoning off excessive hot air with parody and exaggerated melodramatic effects. No wonder Aronofsky admires Matthew Bourne, the bad-boy of British dance who made his own Swan Lake remake (all male swans), and who also falls into a tradition of showmen and pantomime players working against the grain of a more elevated art.
Maybe this is not so bad. Ballet, after all, has always been fed from below and from the outside, and Black Swan has at least piqued interest in the art. But what sort of interest, exactly? Aronofsky’s romp through the black heart of a ballerina may appeal to a public hungry for spectacle and sex and tickled by cunning cinematic tricks, but by narrowing ballet to mere horror he has missed the bigger story. In the end, he does just what his Nina dies not to do: he gives us a lifeless one-dimensional black-only swan. Without some hint of human feeling, without the white swan, without ballet itself, Black Swan is what the black swan has always been: a glamorous fake.
Jennifer Homans is the dance critic for The New Republic and author of Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet.