Dabbler Review: Black Swan – Are you woman, are you dancer?

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 CarrieHallowe‘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.

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Rosie Bell


6 thoughts on “Dabbler Review: Black Swan – Are you woman, are you dancer?

  1. Gaw
    February 15, 2011 at 15:54

    Blimey. A psycho-sexual melodrama. Reading parts of that I felt I was intruding on something that didn’t seem quite meant for me, a middle-aged male.

    But I wonder what your friend’s daughter would think of it. A piece of hokum, ridden with clichés and stereotypes, can still be enjoyable. I suspect we sometimes respond to this sort of thing in spite of our more rational selves.

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    February 15, 2011 at 16:35

    Never got over The Red Shoes, poor burd chucked herself under a chuff-chuff, Moira had the look of a half starved twinkle toes and was ideal for the part, reeked of avant-garde, whatever that is. Wee Robert Helpmann weren’t half an evil looking scroat.
    They need classy monika’s of course, the dancers, and none better than Darcy Bussel, what a gal, such a name.

    We have a rule of thumb for movies that states, and I quote, “the more they have the knickers hyped off ’em by the media, the bigger load of old tat they will be”

  3. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    February 15, 2011 at 16:48

    Ditto Gaw’s first paragraph, but substitute senescent for ‘middle aged’. As I havn’t been living under a rock for the last month, I have become aware of a ballet film doing the rounds. The ‘girls’ in my family took themselves off to see it the other day, saving the breath they may need one day by not even asking me if I would like to come along to Surrey Quays and, at least, eat a bucket of pop-corn. But there was no escape. On Sunday last something called the BAFTA’s was on telly and I was dragged away from tidying my sock drawer to look at the leading actress spinning around, and to be told by one of the gruesome crew on stage that ‘Natalie’ was not able to make the gig (lucky her), but that her award would be collected by….a man called Darren. Leaving the room my wife asked me if I liked (the look of) Natalie? I said that I thought that if she could put on a few pounds (kilos actually) she might scrub up nicely.

  4. Worm
    February 15, 2011 at 19:01

    Women have movies like Black Swan to play with their neuroses. Men have things like the scene in Something About Mary when Ben Stiller gets his penis caught in his zip.

  5. info@shopcurious.com'
    February 18, 2011 at 09:34

    Gosh, I still haven’t seen this film, but now I shall have to. From what I’ve seen of the world of ballet, it’s riddled with control freaks suffering from one or all of the following: masochistic and sadistic tendencies, narcissistic personality disorder and paranoia. That being said, contemporary dance seems a lot more creative than the classical variety, even if the music is sometimes grating. The dancers in troupes like the Nederlands Dance Theatre and The Ballet Rambert don’t look so painfully skinny either.

    PS Is crotch-groping sexy?

  6. rosie@rosiebell.co.uk'
    February 18, 2011 at 23:08

    PS Is crotch-groping sexy?

    Depends on the context. . .

Comments are closed.