In the wake of its star, Natalie Portman, winning the BAFTA for best actress, Rosie Bell sorts the melodrama from the magic in Black Swan.
This clip is my favourite piece of Black Swan, the melodrama that‘s doing the rounds at the moment. When I saw it one part of my mind or perhaps my gut was gripped with suspense, the other part, the feminist critic part, was saying, is this for real? Frightening things approach you in basements, subways and behind doors in a claustrophobic apartment, which works very well on the suspense level, the acting is good and so – in spite of the crude stereotypes of character and story dating from an earlier Bette Davis age than from films like Carrie, Hallowe‘en and the slasher stable – it keeps you thrilled in your seat. But those few minutes, of a woman dancing and turning into a swan are real film magic.
(My favourite bit of Billy Elliot, which is a run of the mill film about the outsider finding his true role, is the final scene when the grown up Billy Elliot jumps across the stage in Swan Lake. It‘s such a great effect, what with the mechanics and cogs backstage then the dazzle of performance – and Tchaikovsky’s crescendos and climaxes can‘t help but exalt you).*
A tyro feminist critic could watch Black Swan and observe:-
1. The oppositions, on the Madonna vs. Whore, Classic vs. Romantic lines. So here we have the pale, frigid perfectionist versus the dark sexy let-it-all-hang-outer. Natalie Portman plays, with believable intensity, Nina, an ambitious young ballerina who is a natural for the White Swan in a production of Swan Lake but is too cold, too repressed to play the Black Swan. She has to learn to “feel” the part by finding her own sexuality. This all-powerful magic token she unearths by biting the director, masturbating and having Lesbian wet dreams about her rival, Lily (Mila Kunis, managing to look voluptuous with her heavy black eye-liner, even though voluptuousness is not what you expect in classical ballerinas). Lily of course is not so technically proficient as Nina but dances effortlessly and gropes her partner’s crotch, representing wild abandoned sexiness. Nina, the perfect White Swan, must learn to become the dangerous and erotic black swan, Carmen in a tutu.
This pale virgin versus the dark sexy piece is an old theme. It appears in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) with the figures of Rebecca and Rowena. Maggie Tulliver in The Mill of the Floss (1860) chucks aside a novel when the insipid blonde heroine appears who she knows will defeat the dark interesting woman. I would have thought feminism had come into the mainstream to the degree that someone in the production must have recognised this, but evidently not. The film is done straight.
For thematic purpose Lily and Nina have to appear together in many scenes but it makes Lily’s motivation puzzling. Is she after Nina’s role, or is this in Nina’s mind? Otherwise why does a likable young woman pursue the friendship of a frigid unpopular priss like Nina after several rebuffs? Is her warmth assumed, covering malice? It’s not made clear.
2. The controlling stifling mother (Barbara Hershey). She isn’t as batty as the mother in Carrie, but getting there. Nina’s bedroom is sugar pink and full of stuffed toys, which an eleven year old would find too much. Three felt markers on a placard:- “Infantilised young woman dominated by disappointed mother.”
3. The idea the dedication to an art and ambition are basically bad for a young woman’s womanhood and lead to neurosis.
4. The Svengali figure – the man who can make and break the dependent female. He’s the director of the ballet, an excitingly attractive Frenchman (Vincent Cassel) with a crooked nose. Like the hero of a Georgette Heyer novel he can read Nina’s mind and know exactly what’s wrong with her.
5. The dangers that the city holds for solitary young women. There are apprehensive shots of subways and of the practice rooms in the basement of the ballet studio. Nina, sitting in the carriage of the subway, is confronted by a pervert who jiggles his tongue at her while touching his crotch.
6. The ageing woman (Winona Ryder) who after being thrown out of her primadonna role goes mad and stabs her own face.
The film taps into particular female fears – the menace of the streets and public transport, the fear of their own bodies, the fear of being unattractive, the fear of ageing and being discarded, the fear of sex and men. Nina’s body attacks her, by getting odd rashes and marks on her skin. Finally she accepts her body and her own power but in her moment of consummated perfection she throws herself from a great height and dies. Pure romantic, pure Gothic.
Of course a classical ballet dancer does horrible things to her body to make it do things that a human body is not designed for. Classical ballerinas get eating disorders and break their toes. I went to Black Swan with a friend whose daughter had done classical ballet but when the daughter got older she didn’t encourage it, having by then met crazed dancing teachers who were crippled with arthritis. She says she now finds the shapes and angles that classical dancers get into ugly. Mind you, the daughter, who is beautiful, walks like a princess.
*I was once on holiday in Estonia, staying in a town on the Baltic called Haapsalu, which had been a resort for Russians and where Tchaikovsky had often stayed. In the evening we were walking in a park beside the Baltic and sat down on a park bench, then leaped up with shrieks as the bench struck up Swan Lake. Behind the bench was some kind of music player with a sensory device. In a holiday mood by the tideless Baltic which was covered with wild fowl the Tchaikovsky played as if by ghosts was the icing on the cake, being both beautiful and absurd.