The Black Swan

Reviewed by Trevor Locke

Original published in Arts in Leicestershire magazine in April 2011.

Republished here as part of our archiving project.

Darren Aronofsky’s darkly disturbing story about classical ballet is a taut and often shocking portrayal of the rigours of perfection and professional pressure. Brilliant camera work and casting makes it a gripping film that is heading for the Oscars and Bafta awards.

The Black Swan (film) From April 2011
The Black Swan (film)
From April 2011

Rightly so, because Natalie Portman in the lead role of Nina, the psychotically troubled ballerina is convincingly realistic. The role of Thomas, the Artistic Director (Vincent Cassel) is well played but by no means as solid.

The film endlessly slips between the real world and the bleak nightmares and paranoid hallucinations of the ballerina. The camera follows the action in a hand held way, using the technique of real life news journalism and documentaries, first developed in the Blair Witch Project.

It’s fast moving scenes follow the progress of aspiring dancer Nina whose ambition is to be cast in the role of the Swan Queen. Having secured the role, she becomes obsessed that other dancers are trying to take it away from her. Tchaikovsky’s great classic ballet is often regarded as having the sweetness and candy flossed chocolate box of a beautiful romance; in fact it has a dark side, a grim underside of evil and Aronofsky follows this in his film.

From the stunning opening sequence, the film is constantly backed by the luscious music of Swan Lake, either in full orchestration or on the piano. Set in New York, the cast are rehearsing for a “…stripped down, visceral and real …” interpretation of the Russian masterpiece. The challenge to the lead role is to deliver a convincing portrayal of the White Swan and then transform into an equally convincing evocation of the Black Swan, moving from white to black, from good to evil, in the same character.

Various scenes vividly portray the bone cracking, joint crunching rigours of ballet. The ballerina is meant to float effortlessly across the stage, gliding with almost super-natural grace. To achieve this, ballet dancers have to train like Olympic athletes, having even more agility, combined with considerably more strength than weight-lifters and more tenacity than rugby players. They have to punish their tiny, skinny bodies remorselessly in the pursuit of perfection of effortless movement. Nina has spent years, relentlessly pursuing control of her body and her movements but in so doing has sacrificed her emotional life.

The film portrays professional dance, at this level, as shot through with sexual passions and pressures, dancers mortifying themselves emotionally and physically in the pursuit of discipline and perfection. The Artistic Director, Thomas, asks Nina to “loose herself in the role”, to become the character she is portraying on stage and to make the White Swan as equally convincing as the Black Swan.

Nina, however, lives at home with her cloying mother, a dancer who gave up her career to give birth to her. The tension between the two women boils and creaks and ends in (imaged) violence. The mother treats her little princess like a child; in order to get into the black role, Nina scoops up the profusion of white, cuddly, soft toys in her bedroom and stuffs them into the garbage chute.

She goes out to a night club with another dancer, takes drugs, gets drunk and gets laid in the men’s toilets, the night before her first performance. She (actually or in fantasy) brings the other dancer back to her flat for a night of hot girl on girl action through which she looses her inhibitions and develops her dark side. Did she really do this or was it one of her fantasies? The film adeptly confuses the real story of the plot with Nina’s fantasies and dreams and we are left wondering whether it actually happened or was just part of her mounting psychotic delusions.

This is where Aronofsky handles the story line with brilliant precision. After all, the story of Swan Lake is a theatrical fantasy, a tale of light and dark, good versus evil, spinning out a monumental tale on stage. It’s why Swan Lake is so widely acclaimed as the world’s most famous and celebrated Ballet, beloved of dressy lovers of high art and dance school students alike and the least understood.

The film, like the ballet, peels off the sequins and feathers to reveal the naked passions, the bodily agonies and intense mental pressures that are said to lie underneath. The Black Swan graduates from being a ‘dramamentary’ about ballet into a horror movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat, makes you jump (like all good horror flicks do) and has a surprise ending that you were least expecting. It finishes with a monumental finale of high drama. Just like Turandot or Madam Butterfly’s suicide, Tosca flinging herself off the wall to her death or Brunnhilde riding into Siegfried’s funeral pyre … in that regard the finale of the film is in keeping with high art.

The film noir’s dark and disturbing scenes are counterpoised with those of the corps de ballet in their glistening white tutus gliding across the stage in the light of the moon. But that’s after you have seen moments of sexual abuse, scenes of lesbian love-making and gut wrenching moments of extreme violence laced with plenty of sweat and gore.

This tense and gripping drama ends with some digitally enhanced special effects where you see the skin of the ballerina morphing into the skin of a bird, which then mystically sprouts black feathers as she reaches the climax of the dance and becomes the Black Swan, her body taking on the persona that has been growing in her mind. Two hours of spell-binding story-telling keeps you on the edge of your seat and blasts you with scenes you would not associate with classical ballet.

Beneath the polish and glitter of all great art (it would have us believe), there lurks a dark underbelly that the audience never sees. Aronofsky lays it bare and in so doing creates a masterpiece equal to that of Tchaikovsky. I can hear choruses of professional dancers hooting with laughter about this; but then, thousands of people love Phantom of the Opera and Hamlet. All that Aronofsky has done is to tell a story. It’s a tale of the Brothers Grim, proving that even in the twenty-first century, an audience can enjoy a dramatic plot whose roots reach back thousands of year into the rise of ancient Greek theatre. It’s just the technology that has changed. It deserves an Oscar.
See also:

Review of The Woman in Black (play)

Review of Abigail’s Party (play)

Review of Finding Richard (Film)