The Tragic, Grotesque World of Ballet

It’s not surprising that the director of Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler would bring another shockingly brilliant film to the theaters. Black Swan is a very moving, intense experience and plays with many perplexing ideas as it tells the story of a ballerina gone mad.

The storyline follows Nina, a young ballerina played by Natalie Portman who is striving for the lead roll in her prestigious company’s production of Swan Lake. Their version of the classic ballet is marginalized; the lead roll of the Swan Queen will play both the white and black swans. In short, the ballet is a story of a love triangle, ending in a tragic suicide. This storyline coupled with some foreshadowing of ballerinas past sets Nina up for a spiraling performance that is incredibly believable.

Darren Aronofsky’s directing gives the movie what it needs to seamlessly blend the worlds of dancing and acting – choreography and cinematography. Immediately, the camera work takes the audience up in a whirlwind, and you almost feel like you’re swaying right along with the dancers.

While Nina’s delicate persona fits that of the White Swan, throughout the movie, she is harshly and abusively encouraged by her ballet director, Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel. While his accent leaves him sounding like a French Christopher Walken, his role in the movie is crucial to Nina’s development and descent into the persona of the Black Swan.

Mila Kunis plays a fellow competing ballerina in Nina’s company, and the story of Swan Lake becomes a parallel to the plot of the movie, again highlighting the likeness of the worlds of acting and dancing.

Nina’s mother, played by Barbara Hershey, is just as taxing on the young ballerina. She keeps Nina in a room fitting for a twelve-year-old and keeps a constant, corrective eye on her.

From the dance studios to the home interiors, many of the scenes in Black Swan involve mirrors. The shots are all very well composed, enhancing the symbolism of the mirror in the film. Concepts of reflections and ability to see others within yourself are played with both abstractly and literally as Nina’s psychotic behavior intensifies throughout the film. Her hallucinations keep the viewer on the edge of the seat, constantly questioning the reality of the moment they are being shown. Portman’s character also struggles with her own reality, giving the viewer an amazing performance and a brilliantly questionable validity.

Body image is another running theme in Black Swan. Surely anyone can guess that being a professional dancer would come with a spotlight on one’s physical appearance, but the film highlights these issues, making them both grotesque and fascinating. Sounds of body movements, breathing, and dancing are all amplified, creating even more intensity. Backs, feet, and skin are emphasized, and the rail-thin bodies of the dancers border between graceful and disconcerting. Bulimia and self-mutilation are also addressed.

Sexuality is also very important as both liberation for Nina and a as facet of her new dark identity that needs to be explored. Like nearly every other part of Black Swan, nothing good happens without the bad, and vice versa.

As Nina becomes more entangled in her role for the ballet, she definitely loses herself and her mind. A psychotic alter-ego develops, setting up the classic dichotomy of good verses evil – the black and white swans. This internal struggle that manifests itself physically and mentally in Nina’s life ties the movie’s themes together very well. The two plotlines of the ballet and the film are also excellent; though similar, the likeness is not redundant or simplistic.

The actors all did an incredible job with this one, and I left the theater with a similar feeling as I had after watching Aronofsky’s other films – awestruck, a little disturbed, and amazed. If you’re in the mood to be impressed… but possibly grossed out, definitely go see Black Swan before it’s gone.

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About Ashley Klann

Clark masters student. Local reporter. Photographer. View all posts by Ashley Klann

One response to “The Tragic, Grotesque World of Ballet

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