This seems to be the season of Black Swans. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable spent 17 weeks on the bestseller list and is still being discussed as an explanation for what is happening with the economy. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake returned to New York this fall with its menacing all-male corps de ballet bringing a sizzlingly dark interpretation to this most-beloved of ballets. And now we have the much-anticipated release of the movie Black Swan. The film stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as ballerinas competing for the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a company headquartered at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.
Swan Lake is Tchaikovsky’s iconic folktale about Odette, an innocent young girl whom a wizard transforms into a swan. As in many fairy tales, only true love can restore the heroine to her original form. Odette falls in love with Prince Siegfried, but before he can marry her, the wizard substitutes his own daughter, Odile. Odile attends a ball given by Siegfried and tricks him into believing she is Odette, seducing him with her more passionate charm. Traditionally the parts of both women are played by the same ballerina, suggesting to some modern interpreters that the White Swan and the Black Swan are actually warring parts of a single psyche, the Angel and the Whore.
This psychological dilemma figures prominently in the new film. In its version of the story, Nina (Portman) is a member of the corps de ballet who hopes to earn a principal role in the company’s upcoming performance of Swan Lake. Lily (Kunis) is a new member of the corps who also hopes to earn the role. Nina is timid and innocent, like the White Swan, while Lily is confident and daring, like the Black Swan. Nina doesn’t know what to make of Lily: is she friend or foe?
Black Swan is a traditional backstage movie with a sinister twist. Instead of learning to inhabit the role of the black swan, Nina is horrified to find the swan entering her own exterior world. She must deal with her jealous, overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey), who gave up her own career in the ballet so she could have Nina. The mother is reminiscent of the queen in Snow White, who becomes so jealous of her stepdaughter’s beauty that she wants her to be killed. Nina also has to contend with an evil stepsister of sorts, as Lily manages to become Nina’s alternate and seems determined to sabotage her chance to star as the Swan Queen.
Actors often talk about the goal of becoming so immersed in a role that they turn “seeming into being,” as Emerson wrote in his journals. Nina is technically capable of dancing the choreographies, but she lacks the passion to become the seductive Black Swan convincingly. Her sleazy director (Vincent Cassel) tries to help her by seducing her himself. Lily tries to help her by making her angry. What seems lacking in this film, however, is a Prince Siegfried character, someone for whom Nina could feel honest love and genuine passion.
Instead, the audience must endure several explicit scenes of masturbation and oral sex that is rendered more as an unemotional attack than as lovemaking. Apparently, the purpose of these scenes is to show how Nina gets in touch with her inner passion, but the scenes are gratuitous and unnecessarily graphic. They mar what is otherwise an exciting and fascinating film.
Both Swan Lake and Black Swan are stories of transformation, but the film is deliberately ambiguous about what happens. Is the transformation in this film metaphoric, metaphysical, or merely hallucinogenic? We never really know, and it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately the film is about the ecstasy of a perfect performance, demonstrated on several levels both on and off the stage.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and has served as the entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which will premiere at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas next summer.