We all know the story. Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom, but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince. But before he can declare his love, her lustful twin, the Black Swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the White Swan leaps off a cliff, killing herself and in death finds freedom.
The story, as the director Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassell, tells the ballet dancers “has been done to death” but not in this way where we are promised something altogether more “visceral and real”. Tschaikovsky’s 1875 masterpiece is known as one of the most difficult ballet’s to perform and the prestige that comes from performing it well is simply invaluable apparently (source).
As a ballerina, it makes sense that Nina Sayers, played wonderfully by Natalie Portman, would agonise over getting everything just right and as she tells us herself, she wants to be perfect, but there’s more to this film than dancing. The conflict and struggle occurs within the young woman as she faces her own womanhood while trying to perfect a most difficult role, in reality and on stage.
The story itself goes back to the age old representation of being female and dealing with the basic archetypes: virgin, enchantress, mother and crone. The passage through time goes one way and once you leave one role behind you can’t get it back. The passage from virgin to enchantress is one symbolised by the bleeding that sees you leave childhood behind. The blood stops with the crone who no longer can produce anything fruitful and who has left reproduction behind long ago.
‘Virgin’ Nina is beautifully suited for the part of delicate Princess Odette but is finding it difficult to portray her evil twin Odile, the enchantress in this story, who can effortlessly seduce her intended. The transformation has to come from inside and Nina finds it difficult to let go.
Her fear of progressing is bound up with her profession and her mother who is holding on to the only thing she has left, her care taker matronly role which is on the verge of ending. She doesn’t make for a great example of what happens next as the madness, of which we gain glimpses, is a sign that she is resisting on to final stage of her womanhood, the crone. You can’t defy time but she tries by treating her daughter as a child, clipping her burgeoning wings, in a sense, as she tries to leave. She is the watchdog over the young dancer’s sexuality and we see her sleeping on a chair in Nina’s pink bedroom full of stuffed toys.
As Nina makes her way from ‘virgin’ to ‘enchantress’, we watch as the bleeding starts, in her psyche if not her body. The horror of the blood is a reminder of the unstoppable passage of time. As a ballerina, her years in the profession are limited, a fact portrayed starkly by an older dancer, played by Winona Ryder, who in her mid-30 is forced to retire.
We become witness to the ultimate battle between the death of her mother’s role and her own career which are fighting against the perfection of one moment in the spotlight and her professional glory. The struggle is externalised into this magnificent movie which is both gripping and horrific.
Matthew Libatique’s camera work, which flows and focusses like a dizzying dance, earned him one of the five Academy Award nominations for the film, as did Darren Aronofsky’s masterful directing.
The rite of passage from youth to sexual being is as familiar as the score from Swan Lake, but you’ll never see it or hear it quite like this.