Watching Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, comparisons to the 1947 masterpiece The Red Shoes spring unbidden to the mind of anyone who’s seen the earlier picture. If they pop into yours, try to dismiss them. Black Swan, frankly, can’t stand up to the comparison; nevertheless, it has its own distinct, bizarre but undeniable pleasures.
Like The Red Shoes, Black Swan is set in a ballet company presided over by a monomaniacal, megalomaniacal taskmaster. In Aronofsky’s movie, he’s Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), a lecherous genius who regards his corps de ballet as his personal sexual buffet. The question at the heart of The Red Shoes—“Why do you dance?”—never comes up in Black Swan; Thomas doesn’t seem to care. Certainly Darren Aronofsky doesn’t.
That’s the difference between the two movies: The Red Shoes is about dancing, while Black Swan is about going crazy. Or rather, it’s about being crazy, because in the script—by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, from Heinz’s story—the protagonist Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) may well be barking mad from the word go.
Nina is a dancer in Thomas’ company, a fictitious troupe working at Lincoln Center. Thomas has discarded his prima ballerina and former lover, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder in a jaggedly searing cameo) and is preparing a new version of Swan Lake. In his version, the roles of Odette and Odile—he calls them the White Swan and the Black Swan—will be danced by the same woman, and Nina desperately wants the part.
In Thomas’ eyes, White Swan and Black Swan are the classic dichotomy of male-dominated womankind: virgin and whore, Mary and Mary Magdalene. Thomas tells Nina that if he were casting only the White Swan, she would have the part. But he wants something earthier, more overtly sexual and less technically precise for the Black Swan. When he finally casts Nina in the dual role, he orders her to go home and “touch herself.”
This is easier said than done, given the home Nina returns to every night. She lives with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey, sharp and angular), a frustrated ballerina determined to keep Nina a child indefinitely, away from the sexual impulses that led her to get pregnant and lose her own dancing career. It’s a neat smother-mother metaphor for the obsession with thinness that drives ballet dancers into anorexia, malnutrition and stunted physical development.
Into all this strides Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer with all the easy sexual confidence that the constricted Nina lacks, a seductive young temptress who is more Black Swan than Nina can ever be. Lily is all girlfriendly camaraderie, but Nina feels threatened—she’s never far from it—and knows that Lily is mounting a diabolical campaign to oust her from the showcase role that Nina is struggling so hard to master.
Or is she? Is Thomas really the manipulative satyr he seems, grooming Nina to succumb to this strutting cock of the walk? Is Mother really the sugarplum harpy whom Nina squirms to escape? Is Lily actually as two-faced and devious as all that? Is any of this just in Nina’s head? Is all of it?
Natalie Portman gives a courageous performance in an unsympathetic role. She even gamely does most of her own dancing (with close-ups of other feet for the really hard stuff), well enough to make us accept, if not entirely believe, the idea that Nina is as good as the movie says she is. Nina is tightly neurotic, with fantasies of self-mutilation that she sometimes acts out, and other aggressive fantasies that may or may not come to pass; we can’t be sure.
Like nearly everyone else in the cast, Portman is Oscar bait for sure, and Black Swan is so deliriously over the top that it becomes an instant camp classic. Does it portray Nina’s descent into madness or merely her fevered thrashing around in a place she’s been from the start? As usual with madness seen from the inside, we’re never quite sure how much of all this is really only in Nina’s head. In any case, Natalie Portman shows us that inside Nina’s head is a very unpleasant place to be.