Darren Aronofsky’s latest offering deconstructs the classical conventions of fairy-tale into a dark, intoxicating battle between art and reality.
When New York’s Lincoln Center begin auditions for a modern re-telling of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the theatre’s director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) looks for a girl who can encompass both the fearful fragility of the White Swan and the destructive sensuality of her evil twin, the Black Swan. Nina (Natalie Portman) gets the part for her virginal innocence and both she and Leroy doubt from the beginning her ability to abandon her sexual and technical insecurity in portraying the Black Swan. This insecurity swells and manifests itself as Lilly (Mila Kunis), a fellow dancer, irrepressible and less controlled, however as Leroy puts it, ‘she isn’t faking it.’
This is no simple story of back-stage bitch slapping however. The implicit grey area where Nina goes to in which she must face her deepest desires, like her both sexual and malignant feelings towards Lilly, to break free from her suffocating mother, her desire even to hurt herself, blur the borders of her mind and our own conception of what is real and what is not. Her surroundings, such as the narrow hallways of her mother’s small apartment, the monochrome theatre, the grey breezeblock changing rooms and mirrors on every surface intimate prison-like entrapment, and her image as inescapable.
As rehearsals commence, the confusion between the art of the ballet and the reality of the ballet catalyses a decent into a sort of artistic madness that is coupled with Shakespearean motifs of infection, disease, bubbling sores and the harrowing amplification of fingernail clipping. A homage to the sort of bloody theatricality of the Grand Guignol is here evident, whilst Aronofsky’s influence from several films cannot be ignored. In particular, Nina’s almost toxic paranoia and jealousy of her double echoes that of Bette Davis’ performance in All About Eve (1950), whilst Aronofsky has cited the films of Roman Polanski, notably Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Repulsion (1965) as great influences, both concentrating on the mental deterioration and insecurities within their leading women.
It is Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes however, that lends the greatest insight into Aronofsky’s film. Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) and Nina share a common goal; to give the perfect performance. Nina’s claustrophobic upbringing, her innate desire to please the beastly seductive Leroy and Lilly’s position as artistic and sexual competition constructs a dark parallel to the Swan Lake ballet itself. Similarly Vicky plays the part of a girl who when putting on a pair of magical ballet pumps controlled by an evil shoemaker who reflects her commanding director, is unable to stop dancing until she dies. Both she and Nina share a grim perfection because they bring their art into their reality and live out the fate of their on-stage personas.
In a film industry that seems to be increasingly composed of base romantic comedies, action films and your standard group of factory-pumped-body-part-performers, this is a welcome departure. It will do well in the award season there is no doubt, but more than that, it really is unlike anything I’ve seen before despite its similar ideas and homages to other films. Aronofsky treads boldly on familiar grounds such as the psychological thriller as a genre, the cult of female destruction in slasher horror, themes of back-stage rivalry, art as spectacle and female objectification, creating something quite indefinable. A passionate, melodramatic production that leaves us questioning did Aronofsky, or Portman, or indeed any other member of the crew, experience a dwindled but similar conflict in their creation of a ‘perfect’ piece of original film-making.