Warning: This blog post contains Black Swan spoilers!
The image you take home from Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan , which is up for several Oscars this weekend, is heroine Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) in her opening night performance as Odile, the black swan in Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake . Standing in the spotlight, in Odile’s regalia, black feathers surrealistically adorning her upraised arms as if she is poised for flight, Nina reaches the apotheosis that artists dream of. But triumph eludes her; in fact, she is almost dead, and by her own hand. All that is left for her is to fall onto the backstage mattress at the end of the ballet, bleeding onto her white Odette costume, as Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell), the ballet company’s artistic director exclaims, “What did you do?” The cruelty of this denouement is that it fuses visual brilliance, an impressive performance by Portman, and moldy clichés, hopped up on a new and improved ingredient (more on that later).
Aronofsky’s tale of a ballerina who goes mad because she aspires to creative achievement and tests her limits is a cliché at least as old as the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger ballet classic The Red Shoes. On top of this, Aronofsky piles more familiar tropes. The horror film conventions he uses become snoozable once you realize that everything is in Nina’s head. Then there are the clichés of the woman doomed by a bad mother-daughter relationship, and the tired notion that women are competitive enemies rather than supportive friends, or colleagues. Aronofsky spices up his contribution to the myth of innate female hostility to each other by bringing to the surface the lesbian fantasy element. Alastair Macaulay* acknowledges some of this in his review in the New York Times , in which he bemusedly opines that, clichés notwithstanding, Black Swan ‘s picture of Nina’s life is corroborated by memoirs of actual ballerinas that portray the world of ballet as a pressure cooker.
But wait. The prima ballerina who preceded Nina as the company star, Beth (Winona Ryder), does collapse as a response to external pressures and humiliations; however, she is a secondary element in the film. In the center ring is Nina, a babe who does it to herself in every way that counts. Every fear, her sex scene, her death are all authored by Nina. (She dies impaled on a fragment of mirror she pierced herself with, an image of self-destruction if ever there was one.)
Black Swan intensifies with unprecedented force the idea that women are not made for success as Aronofsky braids together melodrama, a whiff of the real world ballet environment, and his new ingredient that damns the talented woman as, inherently, a self annihilating time bomb.
Voila, the return of a venerable sexist stereotype through the most potent argument possible, the claim that it reflects life. Yes, but … American filmgoers adore the exception, the man who overcomes handicaps. (Has anyone here seen The King’s Speech ? Not every stutterer successfully transcends his problem. Maybe most don’t.) Why doesn’t any director ever adore a ballerina who thrillingly, movingly, gorgeously escapes the conventional neurosis instead of voluptuously sinking with his wounded madwoman into her fatal bathos?
*This post originally misspelled Alastair Macaulay’s name.