Black Swan (US 2010)

Natalie Portman as Nina

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.

Cassel dominates Portman

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:


  1. keith1942

    I think the film has most of the qualities mentioned above. However, I do agree with Philip French: even if it is a melodrama, some plotting seems careless. The later event, where Nina stabs herself, has a serious hole and is distracting.
    Re all the head and feet shots, I assumed this was due to using a double: but apparently Natalie danced it herself. It certainly creates an odd effect. Such style always reminds me of the Film School advice to film feet for transition shots.
    I notice quite a few critics [including in Sight & Sound] make favourable comparisons with The Red Shoes. I think the preoccupatiopns of either film are very different. And I think the Powell and Pressburger movie has a lot more complexity.


  2. des1967

    I agree with Roy that a lot of the negative criticisms come from a category error: they are criticising BS for not being what it doesn’t try to be. The comparison with The Red Shoes is inevitable but – despite obvious overlaps – they are very different sorts of film. The obvious point of contact is the way each presents a ballerina driven mad because of the demands of her art and there is a certain similarity between the characters played by Anton Walbrook and Vincent Cassel (but, unlike Roy, I found Cassell’s performance a little perfunctory.) But, in The Red Shoes, much of the spectacle comes from the real performance of the dance with Moira Shearer as a real ballet dancer. Some critics (perhaps dance rather than film critics) treat it as a documentary on ballet, giving it a couple of grudging points here and there for showing how hard and painful a profession it can be but generally finding it wanting.

    Another criticism is that the film has a fondness for clichés and here I can see where that is coming from. Black Swan deploys all the clichés of earlier ballet films. We have the obsessive perfectionist, torn between Life and Art, the Svengali-figure, the stage “mom” from hell (think Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest), the anorexia-bulimia, how other ballerinas are out to get your role, the ballerina past her prime becoming suicidal.

    Over the Christmas holidays I watched that other cliché-heavy film, Casablanca, which reminded me of Umberto Eco’s essay on that film, “Casablanca, Or, The Clichés are Having a Ball”: 1
    “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”

    It certainly worked for me.

    The other thing that struck me was the powerful marketing campaign, with expenditure a lot more than would be expected from a label like Fox-Searchlight. I don’t know how effective it has been here but in the USA the film has pulled in impressive numbers. I went to see it in my regular “Orange Wednesday” (two-for-the–price-of-one) late afternoon/early Wednesday slot in the Belmont in Aberdeen. It was the second (of three) cinemas and was almost full, something I have never seen before at that time and a largely/twenty-thirty-something audience, which was suggest the campaign has been hitting the mark. (By the way, were publishing a multimodal analysis of the marketing materials in the next issue of The Media Education Journal).

    Although I loved Aranovsky’s Requiem for a Dream, I didn’t fancy The Wrestler. Now I’m inclined to give it a go.



    • venicelion

      Just on the box-office, Fox Searchlight have North America where the film is on $90 million after 9 weeks – starting as a small platform and then going wide after two or three weeks. I think it will keep going and overtake The Social Network (hooray!). In the UK it is with 20th Century Fox – the parent major. This happened with Juno as well. The UK figures look very impressive after two weeks with $11 million and a low drop of only 7% from week 1. I also noted the younger audience (whilst gritting my teeth at the sound of popcorn and sweet wrappers!).


  3. Rona

    I thought of All About Eve while I was watching (as Sight and Sound notes) – and it is a mesmerising tale of ‘becoming’ – in art and performance but particularly embodying the sense in which all women seek approval or strive in their daily ‘performance’. It worked on all the layers it schematised for itself – the play within a play of the main narrative and the ballet’s – providing the moment of transcendence into the role – on film visually in her Black Swan as well as through the events of the story. It is about art creation on some level – and particularly for women – Nina works as an interpreter of other (male) creators, until she finds an expression that is entirely her own (as Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis similarly work). That symbolically Nina can never go beyond that expression is a whole other discussion! Does Portman’s likely Oscar win (as opposed to her director’s) mean that she has? However, this is not to deny or ignore what a stunning piece of technical work this film was and how Aranofsky subsumes and refines his earlier work (I still like Pi the best of that) – in the service of expressionistically conveying the passion and melodrama of the emotions. A truly unsettling cinematic moment (for me) was early in the rehearsal room scenes, shot in the centre of the set and in a room apparently surrounded by mirrors and yet, no sign of the cameraman in the sweeping, circular shots. Really disorientating – a further destabilisation of our reality into Nina’s unreality.

    Vincent Cassel, with very little screen time, embodies that impressario character type (Anton Walbrook being the classic example as noted) but the combination of the telling economy of his performance and the emotion conveyed through the expressive camerawork create a rounded variation on this I felt. Thomas is the exotic ballet master, the foreigner working with Americans (see the sexual appeal of Mikhail Baryshnikov – even pre Sex and the City!) but he embodies a corporate coldness in his dealing with the dependent ballerinas (‘my little princess’ is as much a role-promotion in the business as well as a term of endearment to promise sexual intimacy with the ‘master’) and we see Thomas as he has to work that institutional web as well as attend to pragmatic details of production. When Nina interupts his last minute, perambulatory discussions with the stage manager, Cassel indicates perfectly how his speech to her is the coaxing by the boss, or trainer, of one of his more thoroughbred, highly-strung assets. His eyes flick downwards momentarily as he talks – indicating the calculation that is taking place in his mind as he soothes. His exercise of power and his management of Nina’s desire is cold (as could be said of many film embodiments of this teacher-pupil role) but it has an exceptional quality of detachment. There is no desire in the cruelty – desire for her, desire for mastery, desire for the cruelty itself – his seduction, like his words, is completely weighed up. Not in the footsteps of James Mason then (!) but the camera holds so effectively on his face – which has always had the power to command it – a combination of performance and camera technique (but I feel I’d have to see it again to understand more of that).


    • venicelion

      I agree with all of this. It does make you wonder how much Aronofsky deliberately paid hommage to Powell etc. and how much he simply accepted the conventional touches – e.g. in the decision that the ballet master would be ‘foreign’. Anton Walbrook was a wonderful star with so many suggestive possibilities attached to his star persona. I wonder too at the casting of Barbara Hershey as the mother. I’m struck by the use of a star from an earlier period – much like Piper Laurie as the Mother in Carrie.


      • Rona

        I agree that the star persona of Walbrook is much more complex than Cassel – for whom I think the potential to be seen as the walking character type was huge (which would detract form the mood) and therefore the nuances added (in relatively little screen time) valuable.

        Your reply reminded me that, since the trailers, it has suggested The Piano Teacher(2001) and the dysfunctional mother-daughter co-dependence depicted there. (Annie Girardot tremendous (a Comedie Francaise veteran apparently) against the excoriating Isabelle Huppert). Irrelevant to compare the performances, but Black Swan had much of the same oppressive atmosphere in the flat.

        On the popcorn issue, try old ladies with boiled sweets and loud comments come out to the ‘nice’ ballet film (a misconception helped by the absence, in the pre-publicity, of the variety of female sexuality explored in the movie). A woefully underserved audience, so I promise I only asked them to be quiet, politely, once!


  4. keith1942

    There is an awful lot of comment and varied points. Basically I am not happy about the movie or its treatment. I did wonder if it is not a little mysogynistic? It is proably not that extreme, but this coupling of art, gender and self-harm seems to me rather reactionary. I think there is quite a lot of Freud in here, not my idea of progressive thought.
    Rona suggests that Nina achives a sort of perfection that is her own. I think she is a victim of the ballet culture. One of Evelyn Waugh’s characters remark ‘that all pornography is about death’. I think there is something of that here.
    At the end of The Red Shoes Lermontov has to confront both the disaster and his audience. If I have the last shot of Black Swan right, the Cassel character stands above the dying/dead Nina.
    Is this a reference to Vertigo? It seems to close of Nina for good.


    • venicelion

      I’d like to respond to both Keith’s and Rona’s points but with the proviso that I think I need another couple of viewings to be sure exactly what is shown.

      Just some thoughts then. Is something reactionary if it isn’t ‘progressive’? Certainly Black Swan doesn’t attempt to be ‘progressive’ but I don’t think it is particularly regressive either.

      Keith, you imply perhaps that the film is ‘pornographic’ – and further that pornography is inevitably a bad thing? The film didn’t feel like pornography to me and I don’t think that pornography is inevitably bad (though the way in which it operates within contemporary society probably means that it is a lot of the time. Then again there is the old joke about my erotica and your pornography etc.

      I think I get what Rona is arguing, but I’m not sure I fully understand her conclusions. One issue I’m not clear about is whether everything that we see is from Nina’s perspective – i.e. much of the film is her fantasy. It seems too easy to simply blame ballet for creating a patriarchal institutional structure. Perhaps ballet is just more open in terms of the powerplays between men and women which occur in society more generally? It is after all an artform based purely on the presentation of the human body through which dancers must express all emotions. It occurs to me that ballet is in some ways the perfect setting for both horror and pornography in its emotional/sexual directness. The key to all of this seems to be Nina’s sense of ‘agency’ and her search for ‘perfection’ and the extent to which this is forced upon her or for which she is inclined to seek.


  5. Rona

    I entirely endorse the difference in endings – between The Red Shoes and Black Swan. And I completely agree there is a deep, misogynistic strain at work in the later film. It’s a strain I would argue is very traceable in modern cinema – if you look at All About Eve as another model, I could cry for the powerful characterisations and performances allowed of women in that film. By contrast, the master/ingenue trope is well established and being played out in gothic romance at a cinema near you in narratives that belittle women in their vulnerability. (It may be a bumpy ride, but there’s no Bette Davis in charge of the seat belts).

    My point with Black Swan is that Nina triumphs and destroys herself (and cannot move beyond that perfect performance). Still it is her performance – she does achieve transcendence. The fact it is within the atavistic structures of the ballet world is critiqued – I think – by the visual attention to her corporeal body. Small, wasted, unnaturally child-like – and subject to the transformation through the strain of her ‘big break’. Isn’t that something that is visibly imposed upon her, by her role in this corporate world – as well as a visible effect of her (internal) neurosis? Thomas’s lowering face is simply a reminder of that imbalance – he is in charge – not a satisfying moral ending where (quite rightly) he should be punished for his hubristic exploitation.


  6. keith1942

    I can see Rona’spoint. But I am not convinced about Nina’s agency. I mentioned the last shot [as I remember] of the film as Thomas stands on the podium over the dying or dead Nina. In some ways this relates to the endings of both The Red Shoes and Vertigo. However, in those films Lermontov and Scotty have both come to the realisation of their role in the tragedy. I don’t get the sense that Thomas has any such awareness. Yet he inciteds Nina’s search to inject sexuality into her performance of the Black Swan. And he incites the rivalry between Nina and Lily. I still feel that Nina finally is the victim.


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