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The Black Swan: Darren Aronofsky and the World of Ballet
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2010-12-29 09:02:53
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Art, the critics remind us, supposedly humanizes.  Music supposedly soothes the savage breast.  But few ever think about the practitioners of art, who tend to be in the business of roughing up turf and creating chaos.  Behind the production of art is brutality, a process often vicious and destructive.  There are rivalries between colleagues.  Envy abounds.  Greatness does not necessarily open doors for greatness.  The world of the ballerina is one of studied viciousness.  Hence, Darren Aronofsky’s effort in portraying the world of ballerina in The Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman as the painfully serious Nina, given the lead role in Swan Lake provided she, under instructions from director (Vincet Cassel) release herself.  Playing the white swan is not her problem – the bone of contention here is Nina’s inability to capture the true nature of the black swan.

A sign of true talent in a film maker is envisaging old material with new eyes. There is little doubt that Aronofsky has made a good go of it.   He just went too far.  The scenes are muscular in their descriptiveness, something that should come with little surprise to those aware of techniques employed in The Wrestler, which won the Golden Lion in 2008.  If the body is a temple, it is also an interiorized world of torments, fragile and easily torn.  The thriller aspect of it (the potential rivalry posed by Lily, played by Mila Kunis, to take one example) has dollops of Dario Argento thrown in.  Even Aronofksy admitted at the opening of his film at the Venice film festival that a ‘backlash’ from the ballet community might be imminent. 

That can only be a good thing.  The lesbian feature between Portman and Kunis caused audiences to gasp.  Self-pleasuring was also frowned upon by many, suggesting an industry run by egos and overly sexed directors.  ‘This is nuts,’ burst out one member of the audience in San Francisco’s Metreon at the conclusion of the film. 

A few critics have been withering.  Apollinaire Scheer, dance critic writing in the Financial Times (Dec 2) found the direction forgetful in one vital aspect: the dancing.  By all means, Aronofsky has given us ageing divas intent on revenge, despotic directors, overly ambitious mothers and the sheer burden of it all, but what about the ballet itself?  Portman, for all her efforts at training, could not be revealed to be inadequate, hence the use of rather restricted camerawork.  The heroine is overburdened with misery.  ‘Who cares whether Nina has really sprouted wings or is only going mad?  You want the torture to stop.’ 

Besides, Olide the black swan merely faked her role, one of history’s true schemers. The true genius lies in the subtle complexity of the Swan Queen.  ‘Aronofksy and his movie double, the ballet director, get things backwards.  If Nina can do the white swan, she can do anything, because the Swan Queen has an inner life.’

The subject matter should have delivered itself to the audience – the incorporation of psycho-dramatic impulses was needless at points.   But the debate, whatever Scheer’s reservations, will be welcome.  The stable of films has been mediocre this year, and this will, at the very least, be worth a conversation in a cinematic field that has resisted it so stubbornly.


Binoy Kampmark
was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. 

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