In Swan Lake, Prince Siegfried falls in love with the princess, Odette, who has been transformed into a swan by an evil wizard. However, the evil wizard who has put a spell on Odette tricks Siegfried into declaring his love for Odeile, the wizard’s daughter, instead. Odeile only appears in one scene in the ballet as the temptress, seducing Siegfried away from the virginal Odette. But Odeile is actually seducing Siegfried on behalf of her father. Is she under her father’s spell? Does she do this out of love for her father? Is he training her to be his successor? None of these questions are answered in the ballet. I point this out to show that on the surface, there appears to be no more to Odeile than her sexuality. However, if we take the time to think about her character, it becomes clear that there might just be more to her than meets the eye. Unfortunately, the opposite is true of Nina in Daron Aronofsky’s The Black Swan.
The Black Swan is a psychosexual thriller about a young ballerina named Nina, who lives with her mother and wants to be the prima ballerina in a New York ballet company. The director of the company announces that this fall, the company will be presenting Swan Lake. The lead ballerina in Swan Lake is expected to play two roles, the virginal white swan, Odette, and the whorish black swan, Odeile. Nina, a young dancer with perfect technique, is the embodiment of the white swan. Unfortunately, she shows no passion or emotion in her dance, which makes it difficult for her to play the black swan. She is cast, somewhat reluctantly, by the company’s director, a sexually abusive tyrant. As she begins to rehearse the part, Lily, a new dancer, begins to dance for the company. Lily lacks Nina’s technical perfection, but she dances with passion and sensuality. Nina begins to struggle with competitive feelings with her rival, and she begins to explore her darker side. She begins to hallucinate and struggle with paranoia.
The movie definitely creates the atmosphere of a thriller, but unfortunately, there is no substance to the movie. This lack of substance begins in the lack of any character development in Nina. I have to say that I think Natalie Portman’s performance as Nina was overrated, but I don’t actually fault her for this. The writer and director simply did not give her enough to do. The writer and director explore Nina’s sexuality throughout the movie, but they don’t bother to explore any other aspect of her character. Most notably, there is no exploration of her ambition. Nina dreams about performing the lead in Swan Lake. She also sneaks into the head ballerina’s dressing room and steals her makeup. But he does not bother to explore this any farther, because ambition is simply not as, well, sexy.
This lack of character development is also clear in Nina’s relationship with the company director. The company director is a sleaze, who sexually harasses and abuses his ballerinas, in the belief that sexual abuse helps a woman to “open up” and “relax.” When Nina is rehearsing as the black swan, the director turns to her partner and asks him, “Would you fuck this girl?” He accosts Nina about her sexual history, and asks her to go home and masturbate. He kisses and gropes Nina during rehearsal. Yet, Aronofsky does not seem to consider that perhaps the director’s abusive behavior explains Nina’s frigidity. In Rosemary’s Baby fact, at the end of the movie, when Nina dances the role of the black swan perfectly, she celebrates by going offstage and passionately kissing the director. Perhaps the Daron Aronofsky believes that a woman feels empowered by sexually responding to an abuser. Perhaps he doesn’t see the ballet director’s behavior as abusive. Either way, at no point does Nina, Lily, or any other dancer consider standing up to him, slapping him, or filing a class action law suit, even for a second. This is unfortunate.
The problem with the Black Swan is not that Daron Aronofsky might be a bit of a pervert. The problem is he’s simply not enough of an artist to pull off the film. Before I saw the film, I tried to imagine what Alfred Hitchcock would have done with the story. Alfred Hitchcock cut his teeth as a director in the 1920’s, when Frued’s influence on culture and art was at its apex. Indeed, Frued’s theories and Fruedian analysis plays a key role in both the symbolism and the plot of his movies. Nina’s mother, played brilliantly by Barbara Hershey, is reminiscent Norman Bates’ “mother”. As I watched the film, the camera shots made me think of Roman Polansky’s thriller Rosemary’s Baby. (I found out after watching the movie that Daron Aronofsky based the look of the film off of another one of Polansky’s films.) Naturally, I began to wonder what Polansky would have done with The Black Swan. Either one would probably have been better.
Daron Aronofsky loads up his film with symbolism. Nina’s room is filled with stuffed animals, and later, as she attempts to embrace the role of The Black Swan, she throws them into the incinerator. Her apartment is covered with childish drawings. Obviously, the film also uses the colors white and black throughout the film, with Nina dressing in white, and Lily frequently dressing in black, or darker colors. Nina has alabaster skin; Lily has a darker skin tone. Unfortunately, the symbolism is so painfully obvious, it comes across as amateurish. It’s almost as if the writer and director said, “Hey! Let’s try to be super sophisticated and throw in some symbolism!” Unfortunately, the symbolism lacks any sophistication. It feels grafted onto the movie, rather than springing from it organically. I also think that the problems in the plot and character development make the symbolism problems that much more obvious. I told one of my friends that the symbolism of the movie was always clear, but the plot was occasionally murky. That’s never a good sign.
When I first heard about The Black Swan, I was intrigued, and yet I was not sure I wanted to see it in the theater. At first, I was excited by the premise. Then I thought, “Hasn’t this been done before?” Of course, a great artist can frequently take a premise that has been done before and add his own interpretation to it, and make a great work of art. Unfortunately, I don’t think that Daron Aronofsky is a great artist. As I told a friend, “I want to take the premise of The Black Swan and give it to a better screen writer, and then give that to a better director.” The result would have been a better movie.
Postscript: If the reader wants to see a film influenced by Sigmund Frued, see any film by Alfred Hitchcock, particularly Psycho or Spellbound. If the reader wants to see a thriller, see Rosemary’s Baby. If the reader is looking for a dark fairy tale, see Pan’s Labyrinth.