Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which will doubtless figure prominently in the Academy Awards nominations to be issued next week, is a horror flick en pointe: terrifyingly claustrophobic, often painful, massively melodramatic, and ultimately self-destructive. In other words, it’s a ballet movie.
Go to any performance of Swan Lake, which Black Swan converts from Romantic tragedy to a story of psychological torture, and you’ll see many young girls in the audience. They’ll be decked out in their fine frocks and many of them will have their hair up in ballerina buns as markers that they are dancers, who that night will dream they might one day dance both the black and white swan, embodying both evil and good in the span of one theatrical evening. For all those parents who want their little darlings to avoid the physical punishment that ballet brings with it— not to mention the rampant cigarette smoking, eating disorders, and long-shot odds against success—I recommend braving the R rating and taking them to Black Swan. The movie should help any aspiring dancer at least to grow up and out of the fairy tale.
The culture of ballet thrives on suspended development. Adult dancers continue to be referred to as “boys” and “girls” well into the their chronological, if not emotional, maturity. In Black Swan this oppressive infantilization of dancers is expressed most pithily by the sleazy but brilliant artistic director/choreographer, played with suave arrogance by Vincent Cassel, who calls his has-been prima ballerina—inspired casting put Winona Ryder in the part of the bitter, washed-up star—as “my little princess.” In the last dying moments of the film, the choreographer transfers the nickname to her replacement, Nina, given a beautiful performance by Natalie Portman. Her Nina is fragile and tough, exposed and elusive, poised and unhinged.
The ballerina’s relentless concentration on self derives not only from the demands of this most physically trying form of expression, but also from the fact that artistic life is lived in front of mirrors, staring at one’s own body. The toddler’s obsession with her own reflection extends across a ballet lifetime.
The stage mother, whose malevolent, controlling solicitude electrifies the screen in the person of the botoxed and face-lifted Barbara Hershey, is just another kind of a mirror: the daughter sees in her mother her own fears of failure; the mother looks at her daughter as if at herself, treating the younger body and career as her own. She clings onto lost youth and own ballet aspirations by keeping her fully-grown daughter (like Portman, Nina is in her late twenties in the film) preserved in sugar and spice and everything nice.
In animating the clichés—the dark fairy tales—of ballet pathology in Black Swan, Aronofsky’s film is dominated by mirrors, and when these are not at hand, the heroine regards, and is haunted by, her reflection in subway and taxi windows. Strangers mirror her, too, as Nina keeps having visions of and encounters with doppelgängers: other young women she sees in the subway appear to be versions her, as does a new dancer in the company. The image of the ballerina heroine of the movie is increasingly fragmented, until at last a shattered mirror paradoxically gives the story its necessary closure.
A world enclosed by self-obsession is also enfolded in sound: when dancers look at themselves there is inevitably music, most often the ballet class piano numbers—mazurkas, polonaises, waltzes—with powerful rhythms (except for the inevitable adagio) and predictable harmonic sequences that track the progress of the workout from pliés to jumps and pirouettes. Some of these ballet-class classics are heard several times in Black Swan and come as a brace of cold water accompanying cuts away from the horror of Nina’s domestic life and her schizophrenic exchanges with her mother and those doppelgängers. Often interrupting the soundtrack’s eerily droning bass notes and snaking Tchaikovskian oboe lines tethered to repetitive chords that mirror Nina’s psychological disintegration, this piano music throws Nina back to something she can understand—physical effort. But the return to the studio with the piano echoing through it and the pianist’s occasional slips captured to shore up the verisimilitude of these scenes also means further confrontation with too many mirrors. (In a moment in the film that all ballet rehearsal pianists will surely applaud, one of them finally walks out of a after-hours practice session with Nina. “Why are you leaving?” she asks in desperation. “Because I’ve got a life,” comes the response.) The image of the dancer in infinite regression from front, behind and both sides bounces back to her accompanied by music. The moving picture the ballerina sees in the glass has a live soundtrack.
The genius of this film’s score is that the vision of a dancer’s ultimate madness in pursuit of artistic perfection, a perfection distinct from technical accuracy and allied with sexual awakening, is hermetically sealed by Tchaikovsky’s music, itself often distorted beyond recognition. The symphonic score is often taken to portray the inner emotional state of an assumed protagonist, personified most famously in Beethoven, who, as the textbooks would have us believe, triumphed over his own affliction and fathered the Romantic style. In Black Swan the Romanticism of the grand theme from Swan Lake inevitably evokes the longing for love and freedom dramatized in the original ballet. While Tchaikovsky’s music necessarily conjures these same desires in the heroine, it also threatens to suffocate her. Even the music box with ceramic ballerina in pink tutu that Nina’s mother winds and places next to her pink bed plays Tchaikovsky’s theme. Little wonder, then that Nina, imprisoned in perpetual childhood, hears her own story in the music that accompanies her on- and off-stage drama of struggle and transcendence. As at the ballet class mirror, she can never escape her own reflection, until the grand theme finally cuts right through her.
Aronofsky’s composer, as for all his films, is Clint Mansell. The former lead singer of a band called Pop Will Eat Itself, the Brit Mansell might seem an unlikely choice to grapple with Tchaikovksy’s score, arranging it, deforming it, picking away at its unconscious. The great composers of Hollywood’s Golden Age would have gladly gone to-to-toe with Tchaikovksy. Think of the sweeping Romanticism of Max Steiner’s Gone with the Wind score, although the grandeur of Tchaikovsky’s music stands in relation to Steiner’s attempts at the epic as does Tara to the Winter Palace. But what is required by Aronofsky’s movie, and what Mansell delivers, is not the back-lot grandeur of a bygone era, but uncanny insertions, minimal and unsettling commentaries, modern emaciated dopelgängers of Tchaikovsky’s tragic strains.
Even when Nina storms out of the apartment she shares with her mother and goes clubbing and debauching with fellow company member and possible real-life black swan Lily (Mila Kunis), the house music turns out to be a high-decibel, strobe-lit version of Tchaikovksy. (That music was commissioned from the Chemical Brothers.) Our collective inability to escape ballet music even when out on the town reinforces the sense that what we experience on screen represents Nina’s inner psychological state, rather than some sort of independent reality.
Like the use of the ballet class piano, the masterful sound design of the film helps ricochet the viewer’s perspective from the heroine’s disintegrating mental theater to the film’s version of the “real” world. Mansell’s sinister evocations are silenced by actual sounds, delivered with frightening sonic reality brought to the front of the mix: the sliding into place of apartment door chains; the flushing of toilets; the breaking of glass. Here too there is ambiguity, however, as when the rattling of the subway car on the tracks gives way to its own doppelganger—the flutter of swans’ wings. Even the silence of an empty museum foyer after a gala resounds with a kind of intense presence oppressively muted in the musical underpinnings of the movie.
Tchaikovsky’s music, even in altered form, is also muffled in its function as sounding board of the heroine’s state. It is only in the final merger of off-stage horror and on-stage transcendence that the symphonic upwelling blasts unshackled through the cinema speakers, before the screen goes white for the credits and the music is silenced by the heavenly euphoria of applause.
Mansell’s original cues and his canny arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s music are hardly the most complex and rewarding of artistic creations. In contrast to the Russian master’s score, Mansell’s efforts do not stand up on their own. Like an endlessly pirouetting ballerina, they need a partner to keep them from teetering and looking silly. But Mansell’s score vitally stokes the dark power of this blackened fairy tale that goes white only at the very end.
Needless to say the above-mentioned Academy Awards gang denied Mansell from consideration for an Oscar, because they claimed his soundtrack relied too heavily on Tchaikovsky’s music. That’s like barring a Western because it uses Monument Valley as a backdrop. The so-called Academy’s attachment to quaint notions of musical autonomy and to the aesthetically unique score is endearing only in as much as it shows how irrelevant these archons really are as judges of such things. Only the obsolete could disqualify Mansell’s work precisely for accomplishing what it set out to do: trap the movie’s heroine in a musical house of mirrors before finally letting her fly free.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org