Movie Review: Swanday Bloody Swanday

Black Swan isn’t about surpassing ordinary limits. It’s a film about a masochist seen through the eyes of a sadist. The film could be a textbook demonstration of what academics refer to as the male gaze—with a pretty young thing poked and dismembered under a misogynist lens.

Natalie Portman in BLACK SWAN: A fable that portrays female powerlessness on every level – youth, friendship, collegiality, retirement, motherhood.

By Debra Cash

Darren Aronofsky has said that the idea for his film Black Swan clicked for him when he realized that the enchanted swan maidens of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake were kind of like werewolves.

His movie is a horror, all right, but not the horror the director intended.

The prerelease publicity juggernaut behind this $17 million feature focused attention on the rigorous training star Natalie Portman put into preparing for her role as Nina Sayers, the innocent, young ballerina getting her big break when she is cast in the most iconic role in the classical repertoire.

Physical therapists pulled her legs to lengthen them; her feet eventually were covered in gruesome blisters and calluses; she dislocated a rib practicing a lift; and she spent months eating salad to whittle down her already petite frame. (She also got a boyfriend out of the project, the choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millepied.

Portman is convincing as far as that goes: the swooping, off-kilter camerawork fixes on her face, arms, and occasionally a well-balanced move in toe shoes, supplementing those images with close-ups of feet and shots of professional-caliber partnering performed by her body double, American Ballet Theatre dancer Sarah Lane.

Other critics have already described how, in Black Swan, director Aronofsky is continuing his exploration—in films like The Wrestler—of bodies pushed beyond ordinary limits.

But Black Swan isn’t about surpassing ordinary limits. It’s a film about a masochist seen through the eyes of a sadist. Black Swan could be a textbook demonstration of what academics refer to as the male gaze—with a pretty young thing poked and dismembered under a misogynist lens. Aronofsky’s fable portrays female powerlessness on every level—youth, friendship, collegiality, retirement, motherhood.

Nina dances under the strict, demeaning eye of Thomas Leroy, the company artistic director who uses his casting power to solicit his ballerinas. Insinuating (and French actor Vincent Cassel has just the right degree of cosmopolitan sleaze), he gets Nina back to his palatial apartment, asks about her sexual history, and tells her to go home and masturbate so that she can learn to lose control. What in other workplaces would be grounds for sexual harassment charges is presented as legitimate—if self-serving—artistic coaching. Nina tries to maintain her dignity but later goes back to her bedroom—the one wallpapered with pink butterflies and decorated with stuffed animals and a music box that plays, yes, the theme from Swan Lake—and practices what he preached.

Mila Kunis in BLACK SWAN: She plays Nina’s understudy and possible rival. In a film where the sexual predator is an older man, the most graphic, soft porn sex is between two young women. Who’s watching now?

Oh dear. Portman is a fine actress. If she gets the rumored Oscar nod for this scenery-chewing role, it will be for moments like the one where she locks herself in a ladies’ room stall to call her former-dancer mother on her cell phone to announce she got the part. Disbelief, joy, and the sheer desire for her mother’s approval race across her scrubbed face. But the alternating bouts of hovering and sabotage she gets from her mother (Barbara Hershey, looking botoxed and grim) is its own kind of ghoulishness. So are the bits where we see Winona Ryder as a deposed prima ballerina, blubbery and drunk or battered and hospitalized.

As the young replace the old, the old have little to offer—even in an art form that relies on the oral transmission of knowledge. I guess one expects that message from Hollywood where flavor-of-the-month starlets are commonplace, but it’s especially reprehensible when this is a movie that in its first boffo weekend of limited release skewed strongly to a young audience.

If dancing is about anything, it’s about bodily integrity. Black Swan is rife with images of mutilation. As Nina prepares for the role that requires she alternate the roles of the pure white swan with that of her evil twin, the black one, she begins to find strange scratches on her back, bleeding cuticles, and unexplained stigmata. This mutilation had been presaged by shots of dancers pulling apart and thwacking their toe shoes to get them soft enough to dance in, so apparently Nina’s defenses are breaking down. As she slowly loses her mind—or maybe it was lost to begin with—and the blood and violence increase, we see Portman traversing a maze of reflecting surfaces—subway doors, mirrors—art-directed to convey the nature of her fracturing reality. And of course, there is no happy ending.

Mila Kunis as Nina’s understudy and possible rival Lily puts a cigarette in her mouth with the swagger we usually associate with Bogart. Lily is a naturally sexual Black swan who puts drugs into Nina’s drink and may—or may not—take her to bed. And guess what? In a film where the sexual predator is an older man, the most graphic, soft porn sex is between two young women. Who’s watching now?

In a recent interview, Portman explained that during the shoot director Darren Aronfsky kept messing with her mind. He’d tell her that Kunis was looking really good in her ballet scenes and then turn around and tell Kunis that Portman was the real achiever. The women would meet, compare notes, and just laugh about the sheer transparency of his ploy. Their solidarity was secure.

Because unlike their fictional characters, they knew what it takes to play their roles as ballerinas. It’s called acting.

Debra Cash, Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance,, is a founding Senior Contributor to The Arts Fuse and a member of its Board of Directors. In 2017 she was honored as Champion of the Arts by OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center.

C 2010 Debra Cash

Black Swan Trailer

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  1. Debra on December 7, 2010 at 10:11 am

    PS: In the category “you can take the girl out of Harvard but you can’t take the Harvard out of the girl” Natalie Portman showed her true colors by carrying a pocketbook made out of Nabokov’s Lolita to the Black Swan premier. Love it. Thanks for the link, Amy!

  2. Maureen on December 7, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Quite a review! Thank you for focusing a different take on it.

  3. Anne Tolbert on December 7, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    From the YouTube preview I had determined I wasn’t going to see this film—your review has certainly cemented that position!

  4. Shelley on December 9, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Thanks for this review.

    This is a pointless movie.

  5. Eva Yaa Asantewaa on December 15, 2010 at 8:32 am

    Thanks, Debra, for your well-reasoned review. I’ve posted a link to it on my blog.

    I haven’t seen this film yet, and I might actually wait until I can get it on my Netflix plan. I really don’t see the point of running out and spending $12.50 on it.

    Eva Yaa Asantewaa

  6. Lori on December 15, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Thanks for the pointed review.

  7. Elena on December 16, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    I knew this movie was creepy for all the wrong reasons. Thanks for going against the tide and nailing it.

  8. Chris on December 18, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    I have seen this movie and I think the degree to which this reviewer has missed the point is appalling. The movie is a critical examination of everything the reviewer has accused the movie of being. Debra is confusing misogyny under a lens for a misogynist lens.

  9. David Finkelstein on December 21, 2010 at 10:34 am

    I agree with Chris. Here’s a good example: the movie presents young dancers as if they view older dancers as garbage. I have worked professionally with young dancers for 25 years, and I see this attitude in them every day. Young dancers also often treat older dancers with reverence and respect, but the movie emphasizes the negative side, not because it is saying that young people “should” act this way, but in an obvious and pointed criticism of their behavior.

  10. Rosemary Zibart on January 2, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Thanks for debunking this movie which sends such a horrid message to young women about what it means to be ambitious and talented. I feel the same way about Million Dollar Baby — a movie that was highly lauded but basically shows how a spunky, talented, persevering young female boxer does not end up with the audience cheering — the success Rocky enjoys — she ends up biting off her tongue in a hospital bed. So what’s the message that girls get?

  11. Janet Coleman on January 3, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Thanks for this review. “A masochist seen through the eyes of a sadist” is very accurate.

  12. jenny francis on February 2, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Absolute rubbish. Pornographic, anti-woman, second rate rubbish.

  13. Ardolfo on February 12, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    This “review” speaks volumes about the person who wrote it. In essence, the reviewer is reviewing the reviewer here, not the film.

    The person who wrote it is obviously a pseudo feminist, not a feminist.

    Sadism and masochism exist in all of us to varying degrees.

    The male gaze, what a tired, bankrupt misoginistic term.

    Its astounding what passes for criticism these days. This person should be sacked.

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