Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is that rarest of all cinematic forms, a film noir about creativity itself.
Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina in an unnamed New York company, is cast as both the heroine, as well as the evil, seductive Black Swan in a new production of Swan Lake. The ballet director (Vincent Cassel) tells her she is ideal as the beautiful fragile white swan but has to lose her inhibitions to play the dark seductress. Among his first suggestions is that she go home and touch herself. Reportedly Aronofsky integrated an unrealised screenplay about understudies with aspects of the folklore associated with being haunted by a double or doppelganger. Scripted by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, the film interweaves a story of the tensions within a ballet company—the director is based on George Balanchine, famous for his affairs with his dancers—with an exploration of the agony of artistic creation.
In the movie Nina is already dangerously unstable when she gets the part. She is obsessed with technique and perfection. She also has the inevitable ballet mother (Barbara Hershey): “I gave up ballet to have you.” As she tries to find the character, Nina is overwhelmed by hallucinations and paranoid delusions about Lili (Mila Kunis) her rival, friend and, perhaps, lover whose personality exactly matches that of the Black Swan.
The film is shot almost entirely from Nina’s point of view in tightly framed close shots. As she comes to find the qualities of the evil Black Swan in herself the action becomes increasingly ambiguous, with viewers never certain whether they are seeing “reality” or a hallucination. Symbolically throughout this emotional journey the ballerina is surrounded by one kind of mirror or another.
Aronofsky saves the appearance of Nina as the Black Swan until close to the end. Because of Natalie Portman’s superlative performance the sequence has quite an impact; a transformation scene worthy of John Barrymore or Lon Chaney, only here it is executed by a very beautiful woman. But Black Swan is more than an excuse for some virtuoso acting. Portman and Kunis trained for their parts for six months, and they seem to have the bodies of real ballet dancers and executed many of the routines themselves. (They were doubled for the extended long shots when the dancers were on point.)
Essentially the film portrays the agony of artistic creation experienced by performers confronted by roles that require them to recreate emotions repugnant to them. And this can be only too real. Sir Michael Redgrave told me that Edith Evans would not play Lady Macbeth because, she said, “I can’t stand all that evil.” Redgrave himself never played Othello because he “couldn’t stand all that jealousy”. Pamela Franklin became physically ill when she played a rape victim in an episode of Police Woman. According to the director King Vidor, Lillian Gish starved herself so she could play Mimi’s death scene in La Boheme. In fairness Miss Gish denied to me that she had done any such thing—“I couldn’t have come to work at the studio the next day”—but didn’t explain how she had managed to appear so authentically gaunt in the close-ups. Of course performers learn to protect themselves, but even Redgrave consulted a psychiatrist when he was playing a psychopathic murderer in a long run of a play and came to believe he might be insane himself.
My one caveat about Black Swan is this intense concentration on one character. Aronofsky does supply some context. Winona Ryder is splendid as the ageing prima ballerina Nina replaces and Kunis is superb as the rival dancer, while Vincent Cassel is engagingly sleazy as the choreographer; but we need to see more about the production of the ballet to fully understand Nina’s quest for perfection. Nevertheless the film is an extraordinary achievement with Portman giving one of the great performances in her already distinguished career.
The limitations of Black Swan are highlighted when the film is compared with arguably the finest of all works about the ballet, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). Once again the characters have real-life counterparts. Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the imperious director of the ballet company, is based on the great Russian impresario Diaghilev, with some of the attributes of the film-makers’ former boss, Alexander Korda, plus a touch of the notoriously difficult Michael Powell himself. Esmond Knight’s conductor is played as a combination of Sir Thomas Beecham and Constant Lambert, one of the famous composers and conductors for ballet in the 1930s and 1940s.
The plot of the film is loosely based on the relationship between the choreographer and impresario Diaghilev and the great male dancer Nijinsky, who Diaghilev summarily dismissed from the Ballet Russes in 1913 when the dancer married. (It is fair to add that Diaghilev behaved somewhat better subsequently than Lermontov does in the movie.) In The Red Shoes the central figure is the ballerina Vicky (Moira Shearer), discovered by Lermontov, who becomes famous when she is cast in “The Ballet of the Red Shoes”. Like Nijinsky she is forced to leave the company when she falls in love with the composer-conductor, Julian Craster (Marius Goring). (I suspect this might be also an allusion to Constant Lambert’s affair with the seventeen-year-old Margot Fonteyn.)
The centrepiece of the film is the creation and performance of the ballet, with Powell portraying all the elements that go into the creation of a ballet: the design, the composition of the music and choreography, as well as the rehearsal and performance. Powell created his own ballet company for the movie headed by Robert Helpmann, who not only partners Shearer but choreographed the ballet and plays the principal male dancer in Lermontov’s company. Unlike the later film, The Red Shoes also includes a warmly affectionate portrayal of the tensions and rivalries of this fictional company, which from Powell’s autobiography seems to have reflected the atmosphere on the set.
The best description of the ballet is in the film’s script. This excerpt is reproduced in Powell’s autobiography:
Boris Lermontov: “The Ballet of the Red Shoes” is from a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home but the red shoes are not tired. In fact the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street; they dance her into the mountains, and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, but the red shoes go on.
Julian Craster: What happens in the end?
Boris Lermontov: Oh in the end she dies.
Sir Robert Helpmann told me that when he created the choreography they employed “a static cartoon”. This was a film of paintings for the sets by designer Hein Heckroth cut to the music by Brian Easdale. (This film is included in the special features on the new DVD, accompanied by the soundtrack from the film conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.) As well, Heckroth collaborated with cinematographer Jack Cardiff so the lighting and framing matched the paintings.
The choreography and designs take the viewer into the mind and imagination of the dancer as she performs in the ballet. When the audience, as Lermontov predicted, applauds in the middle we see waves crashing behind Craster conducting. Here The Red Shoes comes closest to Black Swan, especially when the composer and impresario become rivals for the mind and soul of the ballerina. Moira Shearer may not equal Natalie Portman’s formidable skills as an actress even though she is a magical dancer. But Powell’s direction and the formidable talents of Walbrook and Goring portray the conflict for her. Like its successor, The Red Shoes is about the anguish of creation and the interweaving of life and art. For me its achievement has yet to be equalled.
While I was working on this article a DVD of The Third Secret (1964) arrived. For me it is one of the great films of the last century and by a strange coincidence it is also about madness and hallucination. The film was directed by Charles Crichton, best known these days for A Fish Called Wanda (1988). Back then he was famous for Ealing films like The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and semi-documentaries such as Painted Boats (1945).
Scripted by American producer-writer Robert L. Joseph from a story by Crichton, The Third Secret is one of those quiet thrillers with the emphasis on character and dialogue. Leo Whitset (Peter Copley), a distinguished psychiatrist, appears to have committed suicide, thereby violating all he stood for. His patients seem devastated—or are they? The doctor’s fourteen-year-old daughter Catherine (Pamela Franklin) persuades Alex Stedman (Stephen Boyd), a rather melancholy television journalist and commentator, to investigate. He discovers that the murderer could be one of Whitset’s patients. Crichton and Joseph deftly place suspicion on just about all the patients, played by the distinguished array of guest stars: Jack Hawkins is a judge hiding a unnamed indiscretion from his past, Diane Cilento is very effective as a painfully shy young secretary, and Richard Attenborough, always good in character roles, makes a sadly pretentious gallery owner.
Here if you think you would like to see the film I suggest you stop reading and order the DVD because I am about to give away the ending. My excuse for doing so is that only when viewers return to the film knowing whodunit can they appreciate one of The Third Secret’s greatest achievements.
The murderer is Pamela Franklin’s Catherine—the psychiatrist’s daughter, a paranoid schizophrenic. On one level the girl does not realise what she has done. But Alex is able to trick her into revealing that she is the doctor’s unknown fifth patient. On a second viewing the viewer comes to realise that Franklin has given one of the cinema’s great adolescent performances. The young actress seamlessly shifts from beguiling child to intelligent woman and finally insanity. Even though they barely touch it is clear Catherine is in love with Alex and he with her. These scenes are superbly written but it took two extraordinary performers to make them so moving. When I interviewed Pamela Franklin in 1979 she told me she and Boyd had become friends and the warmth on screen was genuine. She also said that deep inside Catherine knows what she has done but goes ahead helping Alex with the investigation anyway. The final scenes when madness overcomes her evoke pity and terror. Between them performer, writer and director have transformed a clever mystery into a tragedy.
The Third Secret is enhanced by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s superb black-and-white photography of the riverside locations that become a reflection of Catherine’s melancholy. If anything the interiors are even richer, with carefully framed long takes and deep focus shots that allow us to appreciate every nuance of the performances.
One final point. Pamela Franklin recalls that Patricia Neal played one of the other patients. For some reason her sequences did not make the final cut. Hopefully Neal’s scenes will be included in the special features of a later DVD release of The Third Secret.