With the steady march of the “Nutcrackers,” dance becomes the popular girl-of-the-arts world in December. But this year, with Darren Aronofsky’s film “Black Swan,” she becomes the mean girl too: pop culture’s narcissistic, competitive, take-no-prisoners witch.
Aronofsky’s film starts out where “The Nutcracker” leaves off, in the naïve, safe cocoon of childhood. But Nina (Natalie Portman), the rising “Swan Lake” star at the film’s center, is clearly one stuck kid. Though she’s in her 20s, she lives with her mother and keeps her bedroom a cushy museum of stuffed toys. Then, surprise! She devolves—some might say evolves, I suppose—into a violent psycho whose efforts to grow up somehow entail self-destructive, drug-fueled sex with strangers.
Why must ballet be infantilized or demonized? Why is there no in-between?
Here might be part of the reason. The heroines of both “The Nutcracker” and “Black Swan” are narcissists. Clara, seated on a throne in the second act, becomes the adored recipient of the performers’ blandishments. But where children’s self-absorption is accepted and even indulged, it’s despised in adults, especially women. Yet somatic narcissism comes with the territory of dance. Dancers live and die by the sword of the body.
Like “The Nutcracker,” “Black Swan” is a fairy tale, a fantasy—but a dark one. Its world is suffocating, entrapping. Mirrors and doppelgangers are everywhere while windows are few. Even when she’s not in her apparently windowless home or at the studio, Nina lives in dark, enclosed places, a nightclub or the subway, where she and everyone else are shadowy reflections in its windows.
The film’s claustrophobia is also built into the story line. The overriding question in “Black Swan” is Nina’s future, her career—and what examples does she have for that? There’s the bitter, damaged Beth (Winona Ryder), the former Swan Queen whom Nina displaces. There’s Nina’s bitter, damaged single mother (Barbara Hershey), a has-been who never was and who now lives vicariously through her daughter. And there’s Nina’s rival Lily (Mila Kunis), a vacant, profligate soul rebelling against ballet’s anachronism and monasticism.
Yes, dancers do have a short shelf life. And like other artists, they can be ego-driven, competitive perfectionists and/or rebels. Still, no one comes even close to normalcy in “Black Swan,” except maybe the rehearsal pianist who storms out of the studio announcing, “I have a life!” That lack of the everyday separates this film from Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” where the aging fighter/performer (Mickey Rourke) manages to connect with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei). They have a life.
Unlike these body/sex workers, Nina is an artist, a Romantic hero(ine): isolated, more than a little mad, and sanctified by her sacrifices. With her tunnel vision, she can see only one way out of all the dead ends she envisions.
That makes for a great horror film, a true psychological thriller. But despite its echoes of the real world of dance, “Black Swan” ultimately distorts it. And distorts it predictably, pandering to our culture’s prejudice against an art form of the body. We adore our games, our sports, governed by hard-and-fast rules and focused on winning. But movement to communicate emotion? It’s easier to laugh at men in tights than come to grips with that idea.
Firmly rooted in our culture’s Puritan origins, Aronofsky sees the theater as a demonic trap and the body as a tomb. At the same time, his feverish plot points and the camera’s feverish onstage revolutions sensationalize dance. “Black Swan” revels in the life of the body, yes. It also pillories those who choose that life, setting them further than ever outside the bounds of the “normal.”