There is a particular kind of violence that is the common currency for Hollywood directors making big budget action films over the last twenty or so years. It is at once graphic and numbing, and it is the kind of savagery that has parents, teachers and governments concerned for the psychological welfare of youth. Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is a neat example of this: blackish-red blood, ‘illegible’ wounds, camera cuts that do not actually depict the brutal act, the sound of a sack of flour dropping when punches are thrown, Pythonesque spurting gore. It is not hard to identify a high level of stylisation here, but also – predictability. The reason that, for many of us, this kind of film is fairly easy to watch and not lastingly troubling, is that we’ve seen it all before. Here comes that word… we are desensitised because between Apocalypto, Lord of the Rings, Die Hard, Saw, Scary Movie and the Watchmen, film violence has been packaged to be watchable, it’s absent of the erratic oddities of real-life injury and frankly, none of us get that vicarious shudder out of seeing Jason Bourne with that cosmetic dribble of blood over his left eye.
It is necessary to set out this account of arbitrary film violence in order to describe some of the elements of Black Swan. This is because Aronofsky’s highly anticipated film depicts a kind of violence not usually seen in cinema. It’s delicately detailed, unsparing in its clarity. You blink, and unlike a normal film, the image is still there. Most disturbing of all, this bloodshed turns every object that the viewer can see into a possible device of pain – building up a tangible tension the like of which I have only experienced once or twice before. Whilst I felt this was a magnificent film, and an important piece of cinema, particularly in the career or Natalie Portman, I felt upset that I was viewing things that I would rather not, just because I was held to the film by its prestige and quality. I spent no small fraction of my time in the cinema peering gingerly out from between my fingers, by the end credits I noticed the tension and revulsion of the violence had left me mildly nauseous, and I simply felt relief as I got up from my seat. I almost wish I knew the film already, to reduce the tension. I wish my first viewing of Black Swan was actually my second viewing.
Black Swan is at first glance an unlikely location for horror. It takes place in the unforgiving arena of professional classical ballet. In a timeless, masterly performance, Natalie Portman dons tutu and ribboned-pump as Nina Sayers, a technically accomplished, but oft-overlooked ballerina, at a stage of her youth in which she is best primed to launch what could be a prestigious career in the public eye. Her company’s forthcoming production of Tchaikovsky’s seminal Swan Lake and the retirement of the company’s prima ballerina Beth, combine to change Nina’s life. The opportunity to dance the dual part of the Black and White swans (one a virginal maiden, the other a malevolent seductress), provokes her out of her usual demeanour: a sweet, focussed girl, ungraduated into adulthood under the pervading care of her mother Erica, a retired ballerina herself. A misfit in the company due to her naivety and closeted inexperience, she begins to experiment with her sexuality and daring in order to better understand her darker side, to embody the Black Swan and win the role of the Swan Queen.
This film certainly does no favours to the discipline of ballet. Whilst fluffy as a cupcake on stage, ballet requires dedication, unfaltering peak physical fitness, and the sacrifice of much socialising – despite the fact that it is an art that most people won’t ever experience, and which tends to breed a very insular and self-referential community. It is also wearisome to the body – a dancer in their mid-thirties is long past their prime, and probably bears the marks of numerous injuries, particularly to the feet. An ex-dancer I know once told me that you are only a “true ballerina” once your have broken a big toe. There is certainly a lot of ugliness at the periphery of ballet, as there may be with any physical activity. In Black Swan, Aronofsky has gathered up this ugliness and hardship, and laced it together with the age-old narrative of a troubled genius driven to the edge of sanity, society and sanctity by the pursuit of artistic perfection.
What ensues is a tense, unpredictable oscillation of personality. Nina’s natural state of mind resembles the innocent White Swan, but each time she forces herself into the guise of the Black Swan, she has further to go to return to herself, and it is immensely gratifying to watch the twists and layers move like ebbing and flowing waves. The story of Nina’s transformation is so grandiose as to echo the great female dramatic characters of history – Cathy of Wuthering Heights, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Helen of Troy, Salome and Medea. Nina’s story is one that feels like it belongs in the annals of ancient literature, and yet remarkably Nina lives in the same world we do. She owns a mobile phone and rides the subway; her fellow dancers sport naff tattoos, drink cocktails, take uppers, flirt with each other and gossip in the green room. Nina’s turbulent emotional state is only heightened by the normality of those around her, none of whom recognise her turmoil, perhaps because the blueprint for Nina’s troubled personality comes from a tradition of storytelling that we have little equivalent for in this modern world. We no longer live in a time where people die of broken hearts, are possessed by the devil or maintain enemies, yet this seems to be Nina’s internal reality.
Black Swan is a film in which no detail is without meaning. This is no doubt a contributory factor to the film’s already widespread acclaim and will no doubt give it longevity. The music of the Swan Lake ballet, in particular the overture and the iconic The Swan permeate the whole film, the orchestral soundtrack remixing its famous motifs or slowing down the piece almost beyond recognition – warping it to enhance whichever scene it matches. I suspect that apart from some incidental music, the entire soundtrack was lifted from Tchaikovsky’s original score. The leitmotif of black and white is also prevalent, both signifying and bamboozling the viewer’s understanding of the presence of good and evil, truth and illusion, sanity and lunacy.