by Margaux Williamson
(I saw this movie with my friend Ryan Kamstra. I wasn’t sure if I would like the movie, but I thought I might like it better if I saw it with Ryan. We have a pretty easy time laughing at things while also taking them very seriously. This is usually helpful with work that takes no breaks for jokes. We saw it at a big multiplex during the day.)
Swan Lake is an old story. Tchaikovsky brought it into form for the ballet in 1876. It tells the story of a princess who is under the spell of an evil sorcerer. By day, she is a swan, and at night, a woman. Other women are under the same spell but the princess is called the Swan Queen. They are confined all together in the prison of Swan Lake. The only thing that can break the spell is the promise of true love from a prince.
We have enjoyed this story for so long because the story both helps to clarify and to mythologize the medium that delivers it – ballet. During the day, the ballerinas are on their toes, defying gravity and human limitations to move in freakishly hypnotic and otherworldly unison. We sense there is something wrong but we also so enchanted. Afterwards, if we happen to be at the same party with the dancers, we watch them smoke cigarettes, drink vodka and occasionally glare in our direction. Mere mortals! But mortals are the only things we ever fall in love with.
In the movie Black Swan, the story of Swan Lake is updated for both the 21st century and the medium of film. This changes a few things. Here the story extends beyond the stage and into the lives of the people creating the staged performance of the Swan Lake ballet. This solves a perpetual problem with the old story: We never really knew why a sorcerer would turn a princess into a swan – other than “because he was so evil” and that is never such a good answer.
Now, freed from the narrow perspective of the stage and the fairytale, we understand more easily that a sorcerer would turn a princess into a swan because it is really something to watch a woman dance like that.
In the old story, a prince does come. He even comes close to breaking the spell for the Swan Queen, but his efforts are thwarted by the sorcerer’s trickery. The sorcerer presents his daughter to the prince as though she is the Swan Queen. The daughter, although dressed in black, is a look-alike of the Swan Queen. The prince is fooled and offers his everlasting love to this wrong woman – this black swan.
When learning of his mistake, he runs to the Swan Queen begging for her forgiveness. Being young and full of goodness, she easily forgives him, but that is not enough to end the spell. The ballet ends with a suicide or sometimes with a double suicide – since now this is the only remaining option.
But here, in the 21st century, we are not so interested in the prince. The prince, whose only purpose is to break the spell of being such a strange creature, is of no use to us. If the spell broke, the Swan Queen would lose her day job. So, in Black Swan, the prince is barely more than a prop. Though we see some elements of his character fused with that of the sorcerer (the company’s artistic director) – the man in charge of the swans and picking the right woman for the role of the Swan Queen. What the Swan Queen wants more than anything is to be all swan. The Swan Queen here is Nina played by Natalie Portman.
Though the prince has lost sexual value, the sorcerer (the director) and the black swan (a new dancer at the company named Lily) have gained it considerably. The director is the boss that Nina wants to please and learn from. And Lily, with her playfully devious and sensual nature, inevitably interests Nina. Lily has so much to show her. These objects of attraction we can understand. They can only help improve her craft, bringing her closer to staying a Swan Queen forever.
Since the origins of the Swan Lake ballet, the Swan Queen and the black swan are often played by the same dancer. Nina’s attempt to embody the black swan successfully (having mastered the Swan Queen already) forms the narrative of Black Swan. If she fails to embody the darker, more sensual depths of the black swan, Lily might be cast in her place.
In an earlier movie of Darren Aronofsky’s, Requiem for a Dream, his manner of exploring the murky and painful depths of drug addiction in Hubert Selby Jr.’s book of the same name, seemed a little generic or unfocused – as though the formula for serious art was obvious: the darker the art, the better the art.
But in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s intentions seem much more articulated and transparent. It seems as though he has set himself up in this underworld, roaming around in the clichés and sludge, because that is the place he loves the best. His pleasure and a very subtle humour accompany everything – though there are no jokes. It helps here that the characters are not victims of drugs, but of excellence. The goal for excellence frames the masochism involved, in this decent into the underworld, as a rare pleasure rather than a necessary cost of pleasure.
One of the best things about the movie is the complete naivety that surrounds Nina as she bravely and blindly attempts to descend to the depths. Because of her inexperience in these depths, she gives everything she finds there the same value: sex is equal to murder is equal to confidence. This makes her quite a villain.
Throughout the movie, Nina longs to earn the ballet director’s nickname “little princess” that he bestows on only the rarest and finest of Swan Queens. It is really something to see how bloody things get before this small woman finally earns her nickname.