Posted on December 16, 2010, Printed on December 18, 2010
Swanday Bloody Swanday: Darren Aronofsky's Sadistic, Misogynistic New Film
By Debra Cash, Arts Fuse
Darren Aronofsky has said the idea for his film Black Swan clicked for
him when he realized that the enchanted swan maidens of Tchaikovsky’s
Swan Lake were kind of like werewolves.
His movie is a horror, all right, but not the horror the director intended.
The pre-release publicity juggernaut behind this $17 million feature
focused attention on the rigorous training star Natalie Portman put into
preparing for her role as Nina Sayers, the innocent young ballerina
getting her big break when she is cast in the most iconic role in the
Physical therapists pulled her legs to lengthen them; her feet
eventually were covered in gruesome blisters and calluses; she
dislocated a rib practicing a lift; and she spent months eating salad to
whittle down her already petite frame. (She also got a boyfriend out of
the project, the choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millipied.)
Portman is convincing as far as that goes: the swooping, off-kilter
camerawork fixes on her face, arms, and occasionally a well-balanced
move in toe shoes, supplementing those images with close-ups of feet and
shots of professional-caliber partnering performed by her body double,
American Ballet Theater dancer Sarah Lane.
Other critics have already described how, in Black Swan, director
Aronofsky is continuing his exploration—in films like The Wrestler—of
bodies pushed beyond ordinary limits.
But Black Swan isn’t about surpassing ordinary limits. It’s a film about
a masochist seen through the eyes of a sadist. Black Swan could be a
textbook demonstration of what academics refer to as the male gaze—with
a pretty young thing poked and dismembered under a misogynist lens.
Aronofsky’s fable portrays female powerlessness on every level—youth,
friendship, collegiality, retirement, motherhood.
Nina dances under the strict, demeaning eye of Thomas Leroy, the company
artistic director who uses his casting power to solicit his ballerinas.
Insinuating (and French actor Vincent Cassel has just the right degree
of cosmopolitan sleaze), he gets Nina back to his palatial apartment,
asks about her sexual history, and tells her to go home and masturbate
so that she can learn to lose control. What in other workplaces would be
grounds for sexual harassment charges is presented as legitimate—if
self-serving—artistic coaching. Nina tries to maintain her dignity but
later goes back to her bedroom—the one wallpapered with pink butterflies
and decorated with stuffed animals and a music box that plays, yes, the
theme from Swan Lake—and practices what he preached.
Oh dear. Portman is a fine actress. If she gets the rumored Oscar nod
for this scenery-chewing role, it will be for moments like the one where
she locks herself in a ladies’ room stall to call her former-dancer
mother on her cell phone to announce she got the part. Disbelief, joy,
and the sheer desire for her mother’s approval race across her scrubbed
face. But the alternating bouts of hovering and sabotage she gets from
her mother (Barbara Hershey, looking Botoxed and grim) is its own kind
of ghoulishness. So are the bits where we see Winona Ryder as a deposed
prima ballerina, blubbery and drunk or battered and hospitalized.
As the young replace the old, the old have little to offer—even in an
art form that relies on the oral transmission of knowledge. I guess one
expects that message from Hollywood where flavor-of-the-month starlets
are commonplace, but it’s especially reprehensible in a movie that in
its first boffo weekend of limited release skewed strongly to a young
If dancing is about anything, it’s about bodily integrity. Black Swan is
rife with images of mutilation. As Nina prepares for the role that
requires she alternate the roles of the pure white swan with that of her
evil twin, the black one, she begins to find strange scratches on her
back, bleeding cuticles, and unexplained stigmata. This mutilation had
been presaged by shots of dancers pulling apart and thwacking their toe
shoes to get them soft enough to dance in, so apparently Nina’s defenses
are breaking down. As she slowly loses her mind—or maybe it was lost to
begin with—and the blood and violence increase, we see Portman
traversing a maze of reflecting surfaces—subway doors,
mirrors—art-directed to convey the nature of her fracturing reality. And
of course, there is no happy ending.
Mila Kunis as Nina’s understudy and possible rival Lily puts a cigarette
in her mouth with the swagger we usually associate with Bogart. Lily is
a naturally sexual black swan who puts drugs into Nina’s drink and
may—or may not—take her to bed. And guess what? In a film where the
sexual predator is an older man, the most graphic, soft porn sex is
between two young women. Who’s watching now?
In a recent interview, Portman explained that during the shoot director
Darren Aronfsky kept messing with her mind. He’d tell her that Kunis was
looking really good in her ballet scenes and then turn around and tell
Kunis that Portman was the real achiever. The women would meet, compare
notes, and just laugh about the sheer transparency of his ploy. Their
solidarity was secure.
Because unlike their fictional characters, they knew what it takes to
play their roles as ballerinas. It’s called acting.
Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts,
design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. A
former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, next summer she returns as
Scholar in Residence to the Bates Dance Festival.