Hall of mirrors: Inside a ballerina's head

"Black Swan' (2nd review)

5 minute read
Portman (left), Kunis: The image a dancer fears most.
Portman (left), Kunis: The image a dancer fears most.
Every once in a while a movie comes along that is beautiful, fascinating and... horrifying. Think Alfred Hitchcock. What the actress Natalie Portman has done with Black Swan is all this and more. Collaborating with director Daniel Aronofsky and the New York City Ballet principal dancer/choreographer Benjamin Millepied, Portman invites the film audience into a graphic novelist's Gothic view of a dancer's regimented life.

Portman's lead character, Nina, is being considered for one of ballet's most difficult female roles, the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. There are two swans inside the one role. The White Swan is good, virtuous and delicate, while her theatrical dopplegänger the Black Swan is selfish, insecure and dangerous. A beautiful human woman is trapped in this dual swan. Her jailor is the magician Von Rothbart, who allows the woman to escape the swan for only a few hours between midnight and dawn.

Portman does an unexpectedly excellent job with actual ballet technique. It isn't easy to balance on one leg or ripple your arms like a frightened bird. Her balances on pointe are sharp and crisp. She didn't focus simply on putting this film together; she spent months in a ballet studio revisiting ballet technique that she'd studied as a young girl. No body doubles executed Portman's dance sequences. She has a lean dancer's body and looks right in the role.

A dancer's routine

Tchaikovsky's famous score races through the film with amplified beats, a surge and roar that's more rock than classical. We see the company members going through the daily business of being a dancer, executing the daily ballet barre workout under the eye of the company artistic director (played by Vincent Cassel), loosening their muscles and working on lines of the body as they sweat through ballet's movement vocabulary. The complicated steps, first laid out in a 17th-Century instruction manual, give the body a language in which it can express a wide range of technique and athleticism.

Nina crushes the boxed toe of her pink satin ballet slippers, releasing some of the restraint of wearing this tightly fitting shoe. All the dancers carefully stitch in elastic bands that actually hold the shoe on the foot, covered up by the traditional pink satin ribbons, which are crossed and tied at the ankle.

All this is very Degas, very classical ballet, but what sets Black Swan apart from other ballet movies is that it's a self-described psychological thriller. In the overheated work of learning the dual Swan Queen role, Portman begins losing her mental balance. Her director (Cassel) mercilessly commands her to "Feel it," "Live it," and the more he hollers at her, the more distracted and frightened she becomes.

Fierce competition

Lily, a newcomer to the troupe (Mila Kuna), catches the director's eye. What Portman's Nina sees in the lovely Lily is the fierce edge of competition, and fear: Can she execute this great role at a high level? She pushes herself, eating badly, frightening her mother, who is overly involved in her daughter's professional life.

In order to feel it and live it, Nina accepts an invitation from Lily to go on an evening on the town for what turns out to be a sordid introduction to drinking, drugs and casual sex of all kinds. She ends the night perplexed and confused. What happened? Who were these people? The psychological damage the heroine absorbs can be seen in her bloodshot eyes and the bleeding fingernails, not to forget the red scratches on her back.

On opening night, Lily visits Nina's dressing room to congratulate her. Nina grabs Lily by the shoulders and pushes her into a full-length mirror on a closet door. Blood and glass fly everywhere. A bewildered Nina picks up a piece of the glass and stares at the carnage. Hearing the call to the stage, she panics and pulls the body away from the door, opens it and jams the body inside. She straightens up her costume to leave but sees blood gushing under the door into the room. She places a towel over the blood, and then looks down and sees a small inexplicable red bloodstain oozing at her waistline.

Absence of blood

At the next intermission, Nina rushes back to her dressing room to double-check things, surprised there is no blood under the door. She opens the closet and it's empty. What really happened? What has she done, or not done?

Nina is terrified; the music begins to soar hysterically; and she changes her costume and returns to the stage wings. She is moving ever closer to Swan Lake's tragic conclusion with the Black Swan dying as the prince implores her to stay with him. She rushes to the top of a cliff, flaps her beautiful arms and jumps into oblivion. When she doesn't reappear to join the curtain bows, stagehands and cast go behind the cliff where they find Nina's body splayed on the mattress onto which she has jumped. She is soaked in blood.

Up from The Red Shoes

Was any of this real? Aronofsky emphasizes that mirrors are the film's central metaphor. Ballet is an art form taught and perfected in front of mirrors. What Nina sees in the mirror is what she fears most: Lily superimposed on Nina's role as the Swan Queen. Her fear is so great that she attacks this mirror image, only hurting herself.

This is not Moira Shearer's beloved ballet 1948 film ballet classic, The Red Shoes, in which the heroine dies because she can no longer dance and she can't imagine life without dancing. Portman's heroine can't sort out what's real and what's in her overheated imagination.

In the final scene, Nina leaves the theater, looking over her shoulder waving good night to Lily. Smoke and mirrors indeed.♦

To read another review by Jane Biberman, click here.
To read responses, click here and here.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.

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