Darren Aronofsky’s film seems to have caused quite a stir, dividing critics but, in the UK at least, drawing in large audiences. In some ways its reception resembles that of Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Certainly, Black Swan seems to draw on some very obvious sources. Powell & Pressburger is again a major source – The Red Shoes of course, but also Black Narcissus and Tales of Hoffman (even possibly Gone to Earth). Then there’s the Polanski of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant meeting Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Brian de Palma (Carrie, Sisters) – and more, I’m sure.
I’m surprised that critics as knowledgeable as Philip French should get hung up on the plausibility of the plot. Black Swan signalled horror/melodrama to me from the get-go. Camerawork, music and production design all contribute to the delirious world of Natalie Portman’s (Nina’s) ballerina. Aronofsky introduces her descent into hysteria/schizophrenia gradually and I suspect that a second and third viewing will show just how carefully this has been organised. At the beginning of the film, there is almost a procedural structure to the process of introducing us to the ballet world and the crucial period when the company must manage the change from one principal ballerina to her successor. This is shown in parallel with the personal life of the main character – the new prima ballerina, Nina. She is shown invariably in pink with a dominating mother, usually dressed in black. Nina (the name has associations with ‘child’) seems like a little girl who is still trapped in childhood – surrounded by her stuffed toys in a kind of nursery space. Like Carrie in Stephen King’s tale the repression of her sexuality sublimated by a drive for ‘perfection’ makes her a powder keg primed to explode.
I can see that audiences without knowledge of Aronofsky might expect either a procedural melodrama around the workings of the company or a drama about the emergence of a new ‘swan’ in the form of Nina (because of course the ballet in which she will star is Swan Lake). But Aronofsky gives clues very quickly that neither of these will be the main interest of the film.
Let me count the ways. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique gives us ‘unsettling’ from the start. The handheld work covering Nina’s journey between her room, the subway and the rehearsal rooms is claustrophobic – she never seems to escape the runs (rather like those designed for laboratory mice). Within the rehearsal rooms and her twin ‘chambers’ (her bedroom and dressing room) Libatique makes good use of the mirrors of all kinds which are essential to the hard surfaces of the production design. Libatique has worked on most of Aronofsky’s films and he has also been Spike Lee’s cinematographer on recent films. He’s a New Yorker who somehow here seems to have captured the city without actually showing very much of it. During the dance sequences the camera stays with the dancers rather than offering us the conventional viewpoint of the theatre audience. This still allows a sensational sequence at the climax of the film in the dance of the Black Swan.
Production design by Thérèse DePrez (another crew member with a long history of American Independent credits) focuses on a stark colour divide – pinks and light blues for Nina’s room, black and white for virtually everything else but with blood splashing and oozing across all. I was particularly taken by the apartment to which Thomas Leroy takes Nina. It’s worth pointing out that most (all) of what we see is associated with Nina’s viewpoint – and this includes Leroy. More on this in a moment. The use of mirrors and mirrored surfaces in the design is matched by the clever near subliminal glimpses of the faces of other characters that Nina sees superimposed on her own reflections or on the faces of others.
Music is essential in expressionist cinema and when the entire narrative is built around the romantic music of Tchaikovsky, the director is being given a head start. Clint Mansell is another Aronofsky regular and I was interested to see that he had re-arranged the ballet score with Matt Dunkley and a large music department. I’m going to need several viewings/listenings (and some guidance) to work out how the music is being used.
Finally (for the moment), the actors. Most of the attention has been, deservedly, on Natalie Portman. She is a very beautiful young woman, offered at one point a form of close-up where she lies in a foetal position along the breadth of the CinemaScope screen – for some reason I thought of Bardot in Le Mépris. The focus is on her body constantly – on the real and imagined damage done to it by the stresses of dancing. There is also a focus on the bodies of the other dancers and their teachers (many of whom are indeed professional ballet dancers). This is fascinating, though personally I find the disparity between the beautiful muscled legs and the scrawny upper arms of the ballerinas in close-up very unsettling. I had an urge to put a cloak around Ms Portman’s shoulders and take her out for a good meal. The film needs a strong male lead and I think Vincent Cassel is outstanding. He isn’t asked to do a great deal and much of the time he just stands or sits and looks, occasionally barking orders. I really enjoyed peering at his craggy face which seems to be developing very nicely into that of a great character star – I remember thinking how he reminded me of a young Jean Gabin or Michel Simon in all those mirror-preening shots in La haine. The physical shock of seeing a child-like Nina cowering before the power of Cassel as he loomed over her was riveting.
I found the film engrossing and satisfying. I love this kind of thing and I’m seriously considering a quick burst of Suspiria to remind me of how far Aronofsky might have gone. In the year of The Social Network and The King’s Speech, it’s good to know that films like Black Swan and Winter’s Bone are flying the flag for the expressionist genres.
I’d like to embed some clips, but YouTube is not playing ball, so you’ll have to watch them on the YouTube site:
Here’s the opening from Suspiria:
an extract from The Red Shoes ballet sequence:
and Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus (showing what lipstick and a red dress can do for a repressed nun):
and a trailer for Black Swan that we can watch here: