When that I was and a little tiny girl, some of my favorite books were set in ballet schools. There was the fourteen-book Sadler’s Wells series by Lorna Hill, which tells the story of lovely prima ballerina Veronica Weston and her friends and family, both in Northumberland and in the Wells ballet school. (Incidentally, I still think Veronica and temperamental musician Sebastian are one of the most gorgeous fictional couples of all time. As a child, I was pretty much in love with both of them.) And, of course, there is the mother and father of all ballet school stories, Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. If you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend it, even if you’re not a little girl. At the very least, watch the lovely 2007 BBC adaptation (starring the lovely Emma Watson). Admittedly, my favorite thing about that book was not so much the dancing as the character of Petrova, who loathes the performing arts and loves fixing cars (when she’s not learning important life lessons from two unmarried lady doctors… I’m not inventing the subtext, just reporting on it!).
I think part of the allure of ballet schools for me was that I would never, ever be a part of them. Like all six-year-old girls in small-town Alabama, I took ballet lessons briefly, but it soon became abundantly clear that I was far too heavyset, graceless, and clumsy to have any talent in this field. Kids who went to ballet school were like kids who solved mysteries or fought aliens – they were cool because they were doing something that did not exist in real life.
Noticing my enthusiasm for stories about ballet, my parents bought tickets for a Covent Garden production of Swan Lake. We’d been up late the night before – trips to UK back then were always an exhausting merry-go-round of little-seen relatives – and the parents were a bit concerned that my ten-year-old self might find the reality of dance rather more soporific than the books I so loved. They needn’t have worried. I was completely transfixed. The minute we got home, I copied my dad’s Swan Lake LP* onto a cassette* so I could relive the experience constantly (well, on rotation with my three other cassettes, which were The Who’s Tommy, Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, and a kick-ass compilation tape made by my brother).
Which is all to say: stories set in ballet schools are dear to my heart, and Swan Lake is especially dear to my heart, so it was pretty much a given that I was going to enjoy the hell out of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.
Black Swan tells the story of a young ballerina’s descent into madness, which is driven by her creepy sex-offender dance instructor, her creepy overbearing mother, the rival onto whom she projects the darker side of her own psyche, and her tireless quest for perfection. It is the story of the artist, of the ruthlessly single-minded pursuit of beauty and the toll this takes on the individual; and it is the story of the Hollywood star, particularly the female Hollywood star. Nina is constantly both infantilized and sexualized by those around her. This is literalized in the scene where she masturbates while surrounded by stuffed animals, but it’s also clear from the way her mother suffocates her like a small child whilst being unsettlingly eager to undress her, and from the way her instructor Thomas treats her. He repeatedly demands that his leading lady embrace her dark side (and by “her dark side” he means “his penis”), but he is drawn to her childlike naivety and even calls her “little princess” – or he calls her that once she has proved herself fit to take the place of the older dancer, who is considered a has-been at 35 (Winona Ryder, in possibly the “ouch”est piece of casting ever). Our society wants women celebrities to be squeaky-clean role models for little girls to look up to, but it also wants them to be sexual objects, and Thomas’s interpretation of Odette-Odile directly mirrors this cultural Madonna-whore complex.
Given the wild, extreme, high-pressure Hollywood milieu it reflects, it’s no surprise that Black Swan is a smorgasbord of bombast, intensity, operatic excess, and headfuckery. Naturally, this brings to mind that other bombastic, intense horror-thriller about an innocent young woman corrupted by the dark side of a ballet school: Suspiria. (Heck, the number of times I’ve almost called Darren Aronofsky Dario Argento is surely evidence of the connection.) I freakin’ love Suspiria. I love all those Italian horror films of the 70s, which the literati call gialli but which I, as a teenager ignorant of film-critic terminology, dubbed ‘spag-horror’: movies made by Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava, with irresistible titles like The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave and Twitch of the Death Nerve. These movies, along with the oeuvres of Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, were some of the most influential on my development as a film-lover, and I love that Black Swan is forthright in acknowledging its debt to Argento, Lynch, and Cronenberg.
I also love the lesbian sex scene (and not just because it lends credence to my theory that the career trajectory of Lindsay Lohan was an influence on this film). Between the ballet school setting, the giallo sensibility, and the h4wt girl-on-girl action, it’s as if Black Swan were specifically designed for me and me alone. And, considering the amount I complain that Hollywood doesn’t cater to my particular tastes, I think I should take this moment to say:
Thank you, Darren Aronofsky.
*These are just some of the ways we listened to music before mp3s, children. You can probably see examples of them in your local museum.