My late friend, the humorist and no-nonsense feminist Veronica Geng, once wrote a very serious story for the New Yorker about a troupe of ballerinas who meekly obeyed the choreographer, a character modeled upon George Balanchine, she told me. As I recall, she viewed these young women as masochists who had adjusted to patriarchy, while remaining attached to the narcissistic and punishing father-figure. That scenario is surely played out in a recent movie that got raves from many reviewers, but one that I found so painful to watch that I almost stopped the DVD in the middle. I persisted because I had already spotted the killer mother, a doppelganger for the star of a vanguard Swan Lake, famously played by Natalie Portman. Reviewers missed this, imagining that the primary double was her rival and feared understudy, Lily (acted by Mila Kunis).
It is almost impossible not to see that whatever delusions, sexual repression, psychosomatic symptoms, and infantilization the Nina character displays are caused by her ambitious, failed ballerina mother (played by Barbara Hershey, an older version of Portman in her face and hair), who has decorated Nina’s room in pink and white, with touches of jet black and with lots of stuffed animals. In other words, the lesbian fantasy that Nina experiences is a dream that connects her to mother as the primary object of her affection and downfall into possible death. “Sweet girl!”
Beside the obvious psychoanalytic points to be made, the movie is also about perfection and ambition, and transmits an old romantic trope–that suicide is an act of defiance, but also the inevitable result of perfection itself. Ballet aside (and its origin is most interesting as a spectacle for aristocrats), the bourgeoisie has been constantly taunted for inflicting perfectionism on a world that is inevitably imperfect, rousing dangerous passions in the lower orders that have led to bloody revolutions. That is the dark side of modernity, and the writers of the movie have reduced this common theme among organic conservatives to the aspirations of one crazy young adult–who happens to be a woman. I suppose the authors think they are feminists too, for much is made of the discarded ballerina, Beth, who was once the lover of the choreographer, but has retired owing to her age (late 30s? early 40s?).
In sum, this supposedly highbrow, even vanguard, movie is yet another sadistic romp spiced with hot sex, drugs, and violence. The advanced ballet troupe is supposedly experimental in asking the same dancer to play both the White and Black Swans, but blackness appears to be a dive into forbidden sex and the desublimation of repression in general, now called “transcendence,” but realized as paranoid delusions and self-destruction. Natalie Portman, a very intelligent and educated young woman, put a needless strain on her body to perform this role. And trust me, dancing and the life of ballerinas were not the point of the film. How fitting that this blog follows my analysis of the HBO version of Mildred Pierce. (However, Mildred is not a failed artist like Nina’s momma, just a monomaniac and a slave to ambition for her daughter.)
[I wish to thank my daughters Jenny and Rachel for helpful conversations about this movie.)