News & Politics

Swanday Bloody Swanday: Darren Aronofsky's Sadistic, Misogynistic New Film

'Black Swan' is a textbook demonstration of what academics refer to as the male gaze—with a pretty young thing poked and dismembered under a misogynist lens.

Darren Aronofsky has said the idea for his film Black Swan clicked for him when he realized that the enchanted swan maidens of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake were kind of like werewolves.

His movie is a horror, all right, but not the horror the director intended.

The pre-release publicity juggernaut behind this $17 million feature focused attention on the rigorous training star Natalie Portman put into preparing for her role as Nina Sayers, the innocent young ballerina getting her big break when she is cast in the most iconic role in the classical repertoire.

Physical therapists pulled her legs to lengthen them; her feet eventually were covered in gruesome blisters and calluses; she dislocated a rib practicing a lift; and she spent months eating salad to whittle down her already petite frame. (She also got a boyfriend out of the project, the choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millipied.)

Portman is convincing as far as that goes: the swooping, off-kilter camerawork fixes on her face, arms, and occasionally a well-balanced move in toe shoes, supplementing those images with close-ups of feet and shots of professional-caliber partnering performed by her body double, American Ballet Theater dancer Sarah Lane.

Other critics have already described how, in Black Swan, director Aronofsky is continuing his exploration—in films like The Wrestler—of bodies pushed beyond ordinary limits.

But Black Swan isn’t about surpassing ordinary limits. It’s a film about a masochist seen through the eyes of a sadist. Black Swan could be a textbook demonstration of what academics refer to as the male gaze—with a pretty young thing poked and dismembered under a misogynist lens. Aronofsky’s fable portrays female powerlessness on every level—youth, friendship, collegiality, retirement, motherhood.

Nina dances under the strict, demeaning eye of Thomas Leroy, the company artistic director who uses his casting power to solicit his ballerinas. Insinuating (and French actor Vincent Cassel has just the right degree of cosmopolitan sleaze), he gets Nina back to his palatial apartment, asks about her sexual history, and tells her to go home and masturbate so that she can learn to lose control. What in other workplaces would be grounds for sexual harassment charges is presented as legitimate—if self-serving—artistic coaching. Nina tries to maintain her dignity but later goes back to her bedroom—the one wallpapered with pink butterflies and decorated with stuffed animals and a music box that plays, yes, the theme from Swan Lake—and practices what he preached.

Oh dear. Portman is a fine actress. If she gets the rumored Oscar nod for this scenery-chewing role, it will be for moments like the one where she locks herself in a ladies’ room stall to call her former-dancer mother on her cell phone to announce she got the part. Disbelief, joy, and the sheer desire for her mother’s approval race across her scrubbed face. But the alternating bouts of hovering and sabotage she gets from her mother (Barbara Hershey, looking Botoxed and grim) is its own kind of ghoulishness. So are the bits where we see Winona Ryder as a deposed prima ballerina, blubbery and drunk or battered and hospitalized.

As the young replace the old, the old have little to offer—even in an art form that relies on the oral transmission of knowledge. I guess one expects that message from Hollywood where flavor-of-the-month starlets are commonplace, but it’s especially reprehensible in a movie that in its first boffo weekend of limited release skewed strongly to a young audience.

If dancing is about anything, it’s about bodily integrity. Black Swan is rife with images of mutilation. As Nina prepares for the role that requires she alternate the roles of the pure white swan with that of her evil twin, the black one, she begins to find strange scratches on her back, bleeding cuticles, and unexplained stigmata. This mutilation had been presaged by shots of dancers pulling apart and thwacking their toe shoes to get them soft enough to dance in, so apparently Nina’s defenses are breaking down. As she slowly loses her mind—or maybe it was lost to begin with—and the blood and violence increase, we see Portman traversing a maze of reflecting surfaces—subway doors, mirrors—art-directed to convey the nature of her fracturing reality. And of course, there is no happy ending.

Mila Kunis as Nina’s understudy and possible rival Lily puts a cigarette in her mouth with the swagger we usually associate with Bogart. Lily is a naturally sexual black swan who puts drugs into Nina’s drink and may—or may not—take her to bed. And guess what? In a film where the sexual predator is an older man, the most graphic, soft porn sex is between two young women. Who’s watching now?

In a recent interview, Portman explained that during the shoot director Darren Aronfsky kept messing with her mind. He’d tell her that Kunis was looking really good in her ballet scenes and then turn around and tell Kunis that Portman was the real achiever. The women would meet, compare notes, and just laugh about the sheer transparency of his ploy. Their solidarity was secure.

Because unlike their fictional characters, they knew what it takes to play their roles as ballerinas. It’s called acting.

Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts, design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. A former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, next summer she returns as Scholar in Residence to the Bates Dance Festival.