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Check Out My Ego: Aronofsky’s Black Swan

2011 February 15

Now, I know we already have our own Film Cricket here at BadRep, and I should really be off writing an alphabetical list of something, but I feel impelled to speech by the power of Swan Lake (and not just because I used to spend hours trying to make my chubby little six-year-old legs form the Cygnet Dance).

The poster for Black Swan, showing an evil-looking Natalie Portman made up as a swan from the ballet Swan Lake with red eyes

Oh matron. Natalie Portman in the poster for Black Swan.

Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s latest filmic offering, hinges upon the idea of a cunning duality running through Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake (1877). We know this because within about fifteen minutes of the film’s opening, the creepy French dance teacher Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has given a rather thinly disguised explanation of what the whole film is about, clumsily telling a room full of professional dancers what the plot of this ‘done-to-death’ ballet is.

Except he doesn’t. The plot of Swan Lake is a composite of various Russian folk tales and a German short story called ‘The Stolen Veil’. It features Prince Siegfried who is reluctant to marry, despite the wishes of his queen-mother. But one night he meets the swan-queen Odette and is completely won round: alas, tragedy ensues when Rotbart, the evil magician, sends his daughter Odile (the ‘black swan’) off to impersonate Odette at the Prince’s birthday party, which she does so well that he mistakes her for his True Love. Yada yada yada. It’s a fairly clear example of the ‘fairy bride’ tradition (where a man meets a magical woman whom he marries and inevitably loses), and typical of Romanticism and other Romantic ballets in its interest in man’s relationship with the supernatural and the ideal: Odette is fundamentally unattainable, an imagined perfection, not a representation of sexual love.

But not if you’re Aronofsky, who can’t resist a little Psychology 101: the Black Swan (whose appearance on stage in the original ballet amounts to a measly few dances) becomes Odette’s ‘EVIL TWIN’, a good old fashioned Id to Odette’s Ego. Just to clarify, that’s Black Swan = BAD, White Swan = GOOD (repeat ad nauseum). Siegfried, whose own sexual stand-offishness and maternal relationship is a lynchpin in the ballet, is all but gone in the film, where he functions simply as a sort of pole for the prima ballerina to dance around. She, on the other hand, now has all his issues and then some: the White Swan is FRAGILE and VIRGINAL (yet has somehow managed to woo her reluctant prince into marriage in the course of a single night), and, in perverted-Ugly-Ducking style, no one wants to fuck her (boo hoo). Meanwhile, the Black Swan is a bit oh-matron, a Sexy Seductress. Were she living in 21st century Manhattan, Aronofsky decides, she would be taking drugs, listening to her iPod, sexin’ down the clubs, and carrying a black singlet around ‘in case she ends up somewhere unexpected’. Gosh darn it, isn’t she exactly like this rather pouting ingenue who can’t dance very well, but has lots of passion?

Thus this Romantic tale – which actually has much to offer Black Swan‘s premise through its use of supernatural and metaphorical elements, illusion, ideals and identity – becomes a tired old angel/whore dichotomy, and an indirect sort of homage to the ur-backstage bitches backstabbing drama, All About Eve (1950). I can’t help feeling here, though, that Aronofsky may have arrived at the party a bit late: as Spanish cinema fans will remember, back in 1999 Pedro Almadovar made a brilliant film based on just this cinema classic, and also managed to fix the 1950s gender politics in the process, making the whole thing a loving tribute to women’s endurance, rather than a film about how women always screw each other over.

a black swan and a grey swan

'Not you, grey swan!' Photo par Hodge.

But even if you read Black Swan as a straight portrait of mental disorder rather than a supernatural horror story (a lazy choice to give an audience, and a bit clever-by-numbers, don’t you think?) the whole thing still hinges around a sexual awakening that portrays lesbianism as a freakish Other, sex itself as A Bit Naughty and the definition of a successful woman as ‘a seductive one’. And from this angle, too, Black Swan is derivative of a much finer (and less misogynistic) film, Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste (2001), which, er, features as its main character a self-mutilating, sexually repressed champion piano player who lives with her obsessive privacy-intolerant mother who wants to live through her daughter.

This post has not been attempting a sword-swinging defence of the sacred Swan Lake story: as Matthew Bourne has shown, it is a skeleton on which vastly different interpretations can hang beautifully. And, yeah, I get metaphor and that. But what really bothered me was this feeling throughout the film that despite the constantly pummeled ‘BLACK SWAN WHITE SWAN’ contrast, manipulation of Tchaikovsky’s music on a scale not seen since Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (itself based on another Tchaikovsky ballet) and the whole ‘ballet theme’ thing, Aronofsky really has no interest in any of those things except as they make him look Clever and link up (in a feminine sort of way) with his Grand Theme of vocations that require you to abuse your body (a la The Wrestler). A case in point is Nina’s much-touted ‘minor eating disorder’, which is presumably introduced as part of the whole ‘dancers are thin and they lust after physical perfection’ thing, and something I have a couple of key problems with. These are: firstly, its yawn-inducing predictability, exploiting the one thing everyone knows about ballet; and secondly the fact that, even though eating disorders are supposedly ballet’s Defining Feature, Black Swan makes no attempt to examine their specific relationship to a career that demands major energy output 24/7.

Plus, of course, the whole ‘Ah yes. She’s a dancer who wants to do well in her career. So let’s give her an eating disorder to really symbolise that drive for perfection. But eating disorders – they’re not all that SEXY are they? The BLACK SWAN must be SEXY… So let’s shove a bit of eating disorder in there, just so we know this is a film about a woman with a perfectionist streak, then forget all about it and focus on the sexy wanking and the sexy lesbian sex.’

Such heavy-handedness sits strangely at odds with the elegance of the dance-world – which, of course, does involve great physical hardship, a short career and an inevitable amount of luvvie backstabbing. That said, I’m not going to attempt to deny I had fun: it’s a rip-roaring yarn, and a splendid performance from Portman. But perhaps if Aronofsky had taken less time to think about how clever he considers himself, and more time to consider the intricacies of the ballet he takes as his framework, Black Swan would be less derivative, less cocky and – as a film – infinitely superior.

Hodge’s List of Related(ish) Films That Don’t Leave Her Toffee Nosed

  • La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher)
  • Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother)
  • …and if you want something specifically balletic, Hable Con Ella (Talk To Her)
  • If you can get over the sexual politics, All About Eve (1950) is a fantabulous film (YEAH, BETTE)
  • And for backstage meta kind of stuff, a lot of the 1950s musicals are still some of the most fun and unpretentious mainstream films you can watch: my particular favourites would have to be Singin’ In The Rain (1952), Show Boat (1951) and Kiss Me Kate (1953).
  • And for all this black swan ‘dark side’ type stuff, there’s always Belle De Jour (1967). Its views on women could be read as fairly atrocious, but aren’t necessarily – one day, we’ll discuss it over pork scratchings.
27 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    February 15, 2011

    I disagree with you almost entirely. But it is early and I’ve not had breakfast yet, so you’ll have to wait until I’m a little bit more awake to find out why and how.

  2. Simon permalink
    February 15, 2011

    Aranofsky is in the same class as Micheal Nolan or David Fincher – they all make films that are very well-crafted (if not exactly avant-garde) in terms of technique but pretty limited intellectually.

    It’s structured around the twin reference points of Freudian psychology and Swan Lake. Yet it has at best an A-Level understanding of either of them.

    Like you say, it doesn’t have to be about ballet to use it as a theme – Hitchcock didn’t have a PhD in Criminology. But if it’s not about any of the things it purports to be about, then what is it about? With the best will in the world it’s hardly a Postmodern exploration of the inherent impossibility of meaning. …It would take a much more sophisticated film-maker, Pixar say, to make an Oscar movie about that.

    It’s fine anyway – it doesn’t have to mean much. It’s a fun, tense and enjoyable two hour watch, but don’t mistake it for any more than that.

    And Vincent Cassell, playing a 1050s stereotype of the pretentious, horny Frenchman is frankly too much.

  3. Michael S permalink
    February 15, 2011

    That sounds quite disappointing – I’ve been a fan of Aronofsky’s ever since π.

    Even more so about the music “… manipulation of Tchaikovsky’s music on a scale not seen since Disney’s…” Clint Mansell’s been impressive for me as a film composer as well as a member PWEI

    : (

    • Miranda permalink*
      February 15, 2011

      Without having seen the film… I think it depends how much you dig “mashup composing”, as it were. I always quite liked Sleeping Beauty’s manipulation of the ballet music, but possibly that’s a view coloured deeply by childhood nostalgia.

      • Michael S permalink
        February 15, 2011

        Technical term is normally “arranging” sorry, muso pedant gene kicking in! ; )

        Now very interested in having a listen… and dammit just realised the score was recorded at Air and booked by Isobel Griffiths. I could have totally blagged getting to a studio visit and maybe even actually met Clint Mansell properly!!!!!!!!!

        Epic workblag fail : (

      • Hodge permalink
        February 15, 2011

        I have arrived! Step aside, folks, coming through.

        *deep breath*

        Ok. This one first. Beef with the disney was simply that now every time I hear any of the music from the Sleeping Beauty my brain automatically fills in all the Disney words. Irritating, especially since the songs in the film don’t match up to where they appear in the ballet – the Malefacent music is actually for Puss In Boots’ dance at the wedding.


  4. Russell permalink
    February 15, 2011

    Right, okay, I’ve had breakfast now. In fact, I’ve had lunch as well so I should be good for this:

    I think you focus too much on the ballet aspect of the film rather than on everything else that’s going on. Really, the ballet is a setting and a back-drop for what’s really the story of one woman’s descent into psychosis. That’s not to say it isn’t important, because it clearly provides both a setting and an allegory, but there is far more than a critique of the medium of ballet going on here. If Aranofsky had made a film about, say, a bricklayer going mad, no-one except bricklayers would be bothered if it was inaccurate; we know that ballerinas and, er, whatever the male equivalent is, don’t routinely go mad and die on stage, nor do they all suffer from eating disorders and repressed sexuality. Aronofksy is using these stereotypes to tell the story he wants to tell, which, as you note, is a companion piece to The Wrestler; I’ve been told this elsewhere as well, but as I’ve yet to see it I shan’t comment on it further.

    Whether in utilising the stereotypic tropes it in fact reinforces them is a matter which is open to discussion, but this may be neither the time nor the place, since I assume we are here for other reasons. Part of Nina’s descent into chaos hinges, as you say, upon Nina’s awakening sexuality, and it is here that things become interesting. I’m sure the view you suggest, that the film present sexuality as “other” and homosexuality as terrifying is a correct and appropriate point of view, but the use of symbolism in the film and the effect of the setting actually gives me an entirely different perspective.

    Nina’s desire is to be perfect. She has been raised, no doubt, in an environment which is both politically and socially conservative. As we’re all aware to our disgust, that environment does see homosexuality as deviant. At the same time Nina is trying to hold on to two conflicting ideals: the black and white swans, as presented through the film, are opposites which she must somehow bring to resolution within herself. It is a little bit like trying not to think of pink elephants (or swans, ha ha ha NOWAITTHAT’SJUSTAFLAMINGO). Thomas encourages her to explore her sexual side in a deeply creepy effort to get her to understand the Black Swan, which is an alien to her. She does so but is caught off-guard by the mother figure, and overcoming this domineering matriarchy in order to become her own person is part of Nina’s journey in this film. She does so by embracing her homosexual desires in an event which may or may not have taken place (it is possible Lily’s fucking with her all the way through), but in which nonetheless she finally overcomes her mother and claims power for herself. That this comes through embracing a “deviant” sexuality is no doubt horrifying to her, in her quest for conservative perfection, but she clearly enjoys the sex.

    While we’re on the sex, I’d like to talk a little bit about the symbolism here. The clear centre of sexual power within this film lies in the female, specifically within the female genitals. The film eschews the traditional Hollywood obsession with an ample bosom and instead places its centre of sexual power somewhat lower. Even Portman’s slight frame (starved for the film, obviously) takes the focus away from the breasts. At the end of the film, the bloody tear in Nina’s white dress through which she has stabbed herself is an evocative image, and brings to mind Angela Carter’s use of such symbolism in “The Bloody Chamber”; Nina has achieved perfection through the ultimate loss of virginity, death.

    I don’t quite follow what you are saying about the eating disorder; Nina refuses cake at one point, but that doesn’t mean she’s anorexic. Sometimes people do such things. I can’t think of any other point in the film where anorexia or eating disorders are specifically mentioned other than the time Lily has a burger while Nina has a salad at one point, but this is used more to highlight the dichotomy between Lily’s freedom and Nina’s restraint than to specifically indicate that Nina’s not eating because she’s anorexic. She looks painfully thin, true, but I don’t think she’s meant to be anorexic; in fact, coupled with the refocus of feminine sexual power, it was one of the times the film bucked a stereotype that I was pleased with.

    I went into the film with little previous knowledge of Swan Lake as a ballet other than its existence and vague story beats I remembered from my own unfortunate study of dance. I do know the performing arts world, and the backbiting and pressure within that world has brought me to the point of madness more than once (that’s why I exited, stage west). I did feel that the ballet made an excellent backdrop for the story. I hardly considered it a supernatural horror story, but rather a psychological one, and it does make use of horro movie tropes.

    Looking back over both my comments and your article, it is true that the film flies particularly close to the sun with regards to its treatment of femininity and sexuality; however, I didn’t feel it was something trying to be too clever, or that it failed because of it. Rather, I was impressed, and for that reason I disagree with your opinion.

    • February 15, 2011

      You make some excellent points, Russell, but I think Nina’s eating disorder is made fairly explicit in the film – bulimia rather than anorexia: early on, you see her feet in a bathroom stall pointing *toward* the toilet before she flushes and exits the stall. I think one level of the film is a metaphor for being a female A-list celebrity in Hollywood (which I’ve written about in more detail, if you’re interested, at, and of course an eating disorder is going to be a part of that.

      • Russell permalink
        February 15, 2011

        At that point I did assume she was being sick, but I thought it was a nervous thing rather than a bulimic thing. I tend to think if they had wanted her to have an eating disorder, they would have made things far more explicit. None of the things cited add up to eating disorder, and I wonder whether the assumption is arising out of the audience’s prejudice rather than the film-makers.

      • Hodge permalink
        February 15, 2011

        Yeah. The eating disorder is there from the beginning. Part of the point here, of course, is that (as I say in the post) the life of a dancer is extremely strenuous, and you need a little bit more than a grapefruit to see you through a whole day of New York Ballet Company training. Throughout the film, every time food is mentioned she either ignores it or looks panic struck (as when Lily asks if she wants to go out for dinner). Turning down the miniscule slice of cake (even though it’s obvious her mother has made a big deal out of it and will be upset) is another, which, coupled with her endlessly repeated desire to be perfect (not a feature that was really well concealed in the, er, deeply layered fabric of the film…), another stereotype of the anorexic, builds into an overall picture of an at least troubled relationship with food. Though, as, again, I said in the post, it’s not overstated or explored, it’s simply thrown in there as one more piece of evidence that she’s after ‘perfection’.

        As for the throwing up, yes, there might be something intended there too (and, of course, throwing up and anorexia are hardly mutually exclusive).

        I am clearly not the only person who thinks this either:

  5. Simon permalink
    February 15, 2011

    Still not sure after reading that very long post that you’ve convinced me there’s anything behind the pomp and bluster (though I do think you have a few good points in defence of the film and its relation to feminity and homosexuality).

    Of course a film doesn’t have to be actually about what it is ostensibly about – in this case Swan Lake. Allegory is as old as the proverbial hills. I’m just not convinced that what Black Swan is using the framework of Swan Lake to say (“ego and id”, “you must suffer for your art” blah blah blah) hasn’t been said a hundred times before and a lot more perceptively.

    That is what I understand Hodge to be saying also – though I may of course be wrong : )

    • Miranda permalink*
      February 15, 2011

      Just to clarify I’m assuming your comment here is @Russell, Simon – although the comments aren’t laying it out that way…

      • Simon permalink
        February 15, 2011

        Yeah sorry. Bad forum etiquette!

  6. February 15, 2011

    I didn’t notice allusions to eating disorders, and believe me those are things I notice.
    So people whose bodies are their livelihoods lay off the cake and get their vitamins, that’s not a disorder!

    I really disagree with you. I thought it was great and I think your review’s criticisms only apply if you are reading the heroine as a generalisation for all women. It’s one character, it’s one story, it’s about obsession – the director has stated specifically that it is the thematic sequel to ‘The Wrestler’ – obsession leading to physical and psychological self-destruction.

    Also, the lesbian sex scene wasn’t Other-y and abhorrent, it was just hot! ie. sexy, the opposite of repressed! Hetero/homo-irrelevent!

    • Simon permalink
      February 15, 2011

      The ethical considerations may well only apply if you’re reading one woman as all women (though that’s a thorny issue). The aesthetic ones apply nevertheless. Past stating the pretty basic idea that perfection is about obsession and supression of desire, is there much else really going on?

      The lesbian sex would have been hotter if I could have stopped imagining Vincent Cassell vigorously rubbing his thighs just out of shot.

    • Hodge permalink
      February 15, 2011

      I find it strange that anyone would consider ‘hot sex’ to be ‘sex when your partner’s face keeps morphing into your own’.

      Although, actually…

      • Russell permalink
        February 16, 2011

        I find it strange that you don’t consider that hot, Hodge!

        • Miranda permalink*
          February 16, 2011

          Yes, well, HORSE, COURSE, etc.

        • Hodge permalink
          February 17, 2011

          Your point about how her body is her livelihood is exactly my own. As I said above, you can’t be a professional dancer and not eat a considerable amount, because you burn about a million calories every day. (Most dancers who are obsessively trying to lose weight are on speed nowadays, for exactly that reason). And all we see throughout the film is Nina turning down food or barely eating any of it (that cake bit is given a fair amount of screen time. Why?).

          Maybe, though, I’m just trying to ascribe a defined meaning to the food stuff that the film doesn’t have. Because it’s soooo deep. After all, he never makes a decision one way or another about whether the whole thing is in her mind or not. Though, of course, that’s a tired old film tradition that’s been endlessly rehashed in a significant majority of well-structured but ultimately facile Oscar-contender film for the last twenty years.

          And that’s my beef, really. It’s a good film in many ways, it’s just not intelligent. That wouldn’t be a problem (cf. pretty much any Richard Curtis film), except for the fact that the whole way through you can just HEAR aronofsky offset going on about how clever he is.

          What this post was attempting to show was that he’s actually using a number of tropes (Swan Lake, backstage drama, the psychological thriller) that have been done better by *intelligent* people before.

  7. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 15, 2011

    I haven’t seen the film…

    What I’ve heard of it made me think that I probably didn’t want to see it, although I found it hard to define why I didn’t wish to see it. Hodge’s review has helped to crystalise my misgivings. (Thank you!)

    The terms in which Russell praises the film give me additional reasons for wishing to avoid it. (Another thank you, perhaps.) Mind, the film I watched most recently is “Attack of the Crab Monsters”. (There are crab monsters, and they attack, what’s not to like?) So, maybe, I’m just in the wrong frame of mind for “Black Swan”.

  8. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 16, 2011

    “And for backstage meta kind of stuff, a lot of the 1950s musicals are still some of the most fun and unpretentious mainstream films you can watch…”

    Going back a bit further, Busby Berkeley musicals are also a lot of fun. Such films as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 Unfortunately, you need a multi-region DVD player for this box of delights:

    Without re-watching them (which I’ll certainly do at some point) I can’t be 100% certain, but I feel pretty sure that these 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals pass the Bechter test.

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      February 17, 2011

      I re-watched “42nd Street” this evening. It is the grandmother of all backstage musicals, and quite probably the best. It succeeded in bringing tears to my eyes on what was very far from my first viewing. And I think it passes the Bechter test. There are quite a lot of named female characters, they do talk to one another, and some of their remarks are not about men (though some are).

  9. February 16, 2011

    I’d just like to point out that the original screenplay for the film was not even set in a ballet company never mind a production of Swan Lake, it was originally written set in the theatre world, so the underlying themes of the story have nothing to do with the outward trappings of Swan Lake. That is just an added layer of nice imagery.

    • Miranda permalink*
      February 16, 2011

      I think that’s an interesting point, but I’m not sure it invalidates any of Hodge’s opinions at all. If anything, Hodge’s view that the ballet doesn’t hang properly on the story is consolidated by the revelation that the story may never have been intended to mesh with the ballet at all in the first place. You could argue that one in either direction, really, but I think it’s a strong point for anyone looking to criticise the film as much as praise it!

    • Hodge permalink
      February 17, 2011

      It’s just not very well thought through though is it… Why call it ‘Black Swan’ and use all the music, plus the tired old ‘black swan bad white swan good’ (which, as i point out in the post is quite a misreading of the story anyway) if you’re then going to be all ‘no but it’s not ballet-based at all! your version of the film is wrong!’ That’s just aronofsky trying to have his cake and eat it…

  10. February 20, 2011

    Hodge, your blog is most excellent.

    Haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment. But…

    “he’s actually using a number of tropes (Swan Lake, backstage drama, the psychological thriller) that have been done better by *intelligent* people before.”

    You can extend that to most modern Hollywood stuff. There’s hardly anything anymore with more depth than a thimble.

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