I’m not a cynical, killjoy moviegoer, I promise, so bear with me.
The resonating scene that sticks with you from Aronofsky’s “Black Swan”, which has been nominated for several Oscars, is the scene when the protagonist Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) dances through her opening night, performing as both the black and white swan in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” As Nina dances in the spotlight, the music rises and black feathers surrealistically begin to grow from Nina’s skin, lending to the visage of Nina about to take flight. This is a moment in which Nina realizes her dream, in-part, of being in the spotlight and rousing the crowd, the pinnacle of what many artists hope for. But her triumph is short lived. Interestingly, before she ends the ballet by falling off the “cliff” to her theatrical death she takes her own life to fully embody the dual roles she plays. As these elements come together at the film’s climax, something quite interesting occurs. The crowd goes wild as she lays on the dingy old mattress, her cohorts congratulate her, cajoling her to get up and take a bow, but then the group notices that she’s bleeding. Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell), the ballet company’s artistic director says accusingly, “What did you do?” This telling yet cruel denouement resonates heavily when combined with Portman’s convincingly painful performance, and the movie’s cloyingly archaic gender clichés. We are convinced of the situation in which Nina finds herself, but there’s something about that situation that leaves us skeptical.
Aronofsky uses the fairly old film tropes that rehash themes of aspiration and artistic perfection, and create an air of fear. Among many, the ballerina movie “The Red Shoes” also tells a tail of a ballerina aspiring to performance and creative perfection who goes mad in the process. Additionally, “The Turning Point” laments on the lives of two ballerinas unsure of where their lives and careers are headed. Aronovsky also uses horror film conventions: the Lovecraftian notion of a person turning into a monster, the grotesque aspects of Nina’s rash, the classic abject mother who stiflingly over-protects her daughter, Nina’s doppelgänger, and even the psychological breakdown Nina experiences. However, all of these conventions lose out from the beginning of the film because the audience knows that Nina is simply losing what little of her sanity she has. (The audience must realize that her grasp at the movie’s start is even tenuous.) Because the audience knows that much of what assails Nina is all in her head, the horror theme evaporates into triviality. Consequently, one of the most powerful tropes in horror–the ability of horror movie characters to subvert gender rolls and power–is completely lost, which brings me to the biggest issue I find in the movie.
The film inadvertently–I would argue–makes statements on and reinforces stereotypical gender norms, which was the most off-putting part for me. Among many tropes Aronofsky uses is that of troubled mother-daughter relationship as well as the idea that women, with their assumed congenital animosity towards each other, choose to be competitive and unscrupulous enemies rather than supportive friends, or compatriots. He also appeals to a “broader”, non-ballet loving audience by introducing and showcasing Nina’s lesbian fantasy illusion. I have heard people mention and I’ve read various references to the opinion that the life of the ballerina is a stressful one, but what is Aronovsky hoping to achieve by using the stressful lives of ballerina’s as a hyperbolic metaphor for delusional perfectionism, and suicide?
There’s more to the film’s plot, though. What is the audience to make of Beth? She might serve as a cautionary figure for Nina, a catalyst for her insanity, or even both; however, Beth’s character embodies a cautionary view on what Nina faces in terms of the pressures placed on the “prima ballerina.” Nina does not learn anything from Beth and her turmoils, however. Nina creates her hell all by herself: the sounds are all in her head, the obsessive attention to perfection and success, her paranoia for the other dancers in the troupe, and even her own death are all a result of her perceptions, crazy or not. (Ironically, the theme of mirrors and what they reflect and refract is prevalent through the movie; the opening scene shows Nina darkly reflected in the window of the subway car, providing ominous foreshadowing, and the movie ends with her literally internalizing her self made [evil] image, her fear, in the form of a shard of mirror.)
The film vigorously pushes the notion that women are not equipped for success. Aronovsky propels this idea by inserting a believable element–the tough, competitive ballet environment–and provides female characters who are neurotic, show conniving tendencies, coddle to a suffocating fault, and seduce to get what they want. Aronovsky then uses the perfect male patsy figure, Thomas, to be the leader, the commanding King, who proclaims who will and won’t be in the ballet, and, who, at the film’s end, asks, dumbfounded, why Nina has killed herself. This maddening and–at the same time–silly scenario infuriated my viewing experience. Such a scenario, with its rote assessment of human character, perfectly samples the shallow world in which the characters live.
I understand that Aronofsky likes to ruminate on people’s obsessive behavior to explore how this behavior affects their success, happiness, and vitality. For example, in his previous film, “The Wrestler,” Aronovsky creates a heavily machismo character to show the man’s sad but ultimately tragic tale, a tale that centers around the lengths, albeit the obviously wrong ones, this man will go to to attempt to achieve success, acceptance, love, forgiveness, and kinship. I see the same inevitable themes in “Black Swan,” but the gender stereotypes are more pervasive. But what really gets me about the film is that Aronovsky peppers in enough realism to give the drama credibility, which draws in the audience and suspends their disbelief, but then he damns his characters by annihilating any artistic expression they might have by forcing them into neat little clichéd boxes.
Is Aronovsky really reflecting life here, or is he celebrating the inner demons of a reality propagated by solipsistic and old-fashioned society? It might be too happy a movie if Nina overcame her stereotypical psychotic behavior and silences her fears to achieve greater artistic success, and it might be dull if her mom rejoiced in Nina’s success that she herself had missed, or the movie might have been too feel-good if Thomas had incited a strong and edgy performance from Nina as the black swan without submitting her to his banal sexual advances. However, as it stands, the oppressive gender stereotypes prompt me to laugh more than find artistic epiphany. I quite liked the Oscar-worthy performances in this movie, but to say it pushes any artistic bounds already laid down would be a fanciful statement.