Whatever you have to give, art takes. Great artists spurn living, in order to create. That’s why great artists are such shitheels: they ignore or feed-off the ones they love, because The Thing – perfection – has them entranced. To know that you are capable of greatness is a curse. But the thing you create – your masterwork – is infinitely rewarding. Art ruins people: it locks them in rooms; separates them from family; pours scorn on their talent; usurps their good health. It’s poison. But it feeds heroes. We admire great artists, even when they’re exasperating. Prima donna behaviour is accepted, so long as we see results. In Black Swan, a ballerina goes mad, and achieves perfection. Art: One; Artist: Nothing.
The most famous of all ballets – Swan Lake – is a tragedy. A young girl is turned into a white swan. Only true love can break the spell. The white swan meets her handsome prince, but he is seduced by another girl – the black swan – a doppelganger. The white swan, distraught, leaps to her death, and, in death, she transcends her curse. In Black Swan, this plot is acted out in real life. Natalie Portman plays the virginal white swan: a neurotic ballerina, immersed in her art. She craves affirmation. But her artistic director, Vincent Cassel, only casts her in the lead after she bites his lip. Chaste dedication is not enough to secure greatness. She must become someone else. Be ravenous. Devour the virgin… and become The Artist.
Like director Darren Aronofsky’s first movie, π (Pi), there is no Plan B for the hero of the story. ‘Greatness or death’ should be Aronofsky’s motto. He is obsessed by obsessiveness. In π, a maths genius claws at reality, searching for equations. He too, like Natalie, rides the subway, alone and delirious. Aronofsky doesn’t have villains in his stories. His heroes are their own antagonists. Bravery isn’t about overcoming bad guys; for Darren, it’s about tunnelling into yourself, pushing past the fearful psyche, getting lost, as a way to know truth. Rarely, if ever, do his heroes survive. But they all find what they go looking for. Doomed, Natalie Portman might be – deranged, she certainly is – but in Black Swan, she’s on a hero’s quest. All the terrors that assail her are necessary. She welcomes the tumult. For her – as for any perfectionist – suffering is the needle of a compass.
There are a lot of scenes in Black Swan that risk bad laughs. In less committed hands, the movie could easily have descended into camp. All the wrong ingredients are seemingly in place: the bitchy ballerinas, the sneering artistic director, murder between curtain calls, mom watching Natalie while she masturbates… By the finale, you could be forgiven for thinking it had all gone haywire. But the stroke of genius is to make Black Swan a ballet; not just a movie set in the world of ballet. The emotions – especially at the finale – are the grand emotions of an older art-form. The end is literally a crescendo; it’s meant to be bigger than life. After all, a story told through ballet dancing isn’t aiming for naturalism. This is expressionist reality.
Those hoping to see Natalie Portman’s big lesbian scene will not be disappointed. She leaps into commercially-friendly lesbian action with gusto. The whole movie, in fact, pushes her toward sex. Vincent Cassel orders her to get intimate with herself. Mila Kunis invades her dreams. Natalie’s virginity is under siege the moment she’s cast as the swan queen. Her pristine looks are smeared by her rivals; a thicket of envy grows in the dressing room. Both sides of Natalie Portman’s screen presence are well used here: she’s the music box figurine come to life, and the siren. These conflicting identities fuel the drama. Sex appeal is both the key to success, and a nemesis. When Natalie embraces her va-va-voom, she’s destroyed.
Perdition resides an inch from glory. The hell of half-knowing is every artist’s ordeal. Craft brings you to the brink, and then… you either catch inspiration, or you nose-dive. In Black Swan, Vincent Cassel talks about “transcendence” as the ultimate goal, the surprise element: where art leaps into being. But you can’t force that, try as you might. You can only work and sweat and claw at the walls. Summon madness, then yield. It’s the insane, masochist urge in every artist. The same desire the hero of π talks about, saying: “When I was a little kid, my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So once, when I was six, I did.” The choice for a great artist is this: peace of mind, or perfection. Art is a flagrant and beautiful risk.