In order to dance the parts of both the White Swan and the Black Swan in a radical new interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has to ‘let go’ to embrace the dark desires within her. She’s a technically proficient enough dancer to fulfil the requirements of the White Swan role but she’s too repressed to give the Black Swan the sexual energy that such a role supposedly requires. As Bruce Lee said in Enter the Dragon, “Don’t think. Feel!” The problem is that once Nina does start to tap into her repressed emotions, she discovers that achieving artistic ambition results in self-destruction and madness.
Director Darren Aronofsky has intentionally created Black Swan to serve as a companion piece to his 2008 film The Wrestler, but the comparison is surface level at best. Both films are heavily influenced by melodrama but while The Wrestler took it’s cues from social realist cinema to present a desperate man whose self sabotaging behaviour means that he runs out of options, Black Swan is heavily indebted to more subjective and psychological cinematic trends. In fact, it closely mimics Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Repulsion in its depiction of a woman whose hysterical sexual anxieties are expressed in the physical world of the film. While both The Wrestler and Black Swan have strong martyrdom themes and feature stigmata-type traumas to the body, Black Swan goes a lot further in romanticising its lead character’s suffering in order to create a spectacle out of her mental illness. While such subject matter allows Aronofsky to display his admittedly accomplished command of film style to maximum effect, there is something insidious about the whole exercise.
Before surrendering to her dark desires, which will liberate her to dance the part of the Black Swan, Nina is always dressed in white and surrounded by infantile objects such as the array of stuffed animals that cover her bed. Plus, she still lives with her overbearing mother, is hopelessly sexually repressed and always on the verge of tears despite getting this far in the extremely tough career of being a professional ballet dancer. When she begins to find a sense of liberation and embrace her dormant sexuality she literally begins wearing black. Perhaps the blunt symbolism throughout Black Swan is just staying true to the straightforward nature of the Swan Lake ballet and overly theatrical flourishes in cinema can work magnificently. However, in the case of Black Swan the direct appropriation of theatrical settings and costumes feels crude, making their meaning embarrassingly blatant. Powell and Pressburger managed to pull off the blend of melodrama, ballet, theatrical aesthetics and hyper-reality magnificently in The Red Shoes without it ever feeling as basic and childish as it does in Black Swan.
Simplicity is by no means a bad thing but Black Swan reduces everything to a series of reductive binary opposites, represented literally by Nina playing both the White Swan and Black Swan. Nina can remain repressed, pathetic, passionless and infantile but at least she gets to stay sane. On the other hand, she can give in to her passions to become sexual, liberated and an artistic triumph but the price she pays is violent insanity. It’s a cruel choice and the audience are supposedly meant to sympathise with Nina but too much of the film is designed to present her as a hysterical freak show.
Black Swan is little more than exploitation cinema but its heavy pop psychology and complete lack of subversiveness make it shallow exploitation rather than transgressive. And unless you buy the film’s disturbingly romanticised vision of mental illness, it isn’t much fun either. The final climatic sequence is virtuoso filmmaking but if you haven’t got on board with the mood and ideas behind the film by then, it will not deliver the exhilarating sensory and emotive rush that it has been designed to. Perhaps those of us who ‘don’t get’ Black Swan are the poorer for it but it’s very difficult to ignore the juvenile representation of madness and use of film style that runs throughout this film.