You had me at horror ballet, Black Swan—nothing has a dark side like pink. But then you lost me in the final 12 seconds. We'll need a spoiler alert eventually, but first (this part is safe to read), what's great about Darren Aronofsky's new gone-Oscar-begging Natalie Portman movie is that it's based on the perversity of the dance itself: Ballet is the illusion that a body is not performing grueling labor, and the more convincing the illusion, the more brutal what's actually going on (what better dancers are doing is harder and looks easier). Ballet is the ultimate aestheticization of labor, the ultimate pinking of punishment. In Harper's Bazaar, Naomi Wolf argues that the movie provides an ugly but needed focus on the conniving bitch in all women. But it seems to me (see how I wrote "seems to me"? See how diplomatic bitches can be?) that the classical story of the innocent-victim White Swan and the evil-champion Black Swan is not about female rivalry. It is about self-hatred.
This is where Aronofsky and I part ways, too. Stop reading now if you don't want to find out—have you stopped? Stop!—that Portman's character, Nina, dies at the end. Her self-hatred has killed her. She's stabbed herself in the stomach with a mirror. It's the correct method for a bulimic, frigid white girl in an appearance-obsessed workplace (the ballet stage). Aronofsky specializes in tailored acts of violence (remember when the math maniac trepans himself—drills a hole in his skull!—at the end of Pi?). But there was no need for Nina's act of violence to be real, since so much of what happens in Black Swan is hallucinated. Why is it, then? Why does Nina's thrashing, delusional fight to become the lusty Black Swan have to result in a literal death? Why does she die offstage the moment she comes alive onstage? Look—we stab ourselves with mirrors and survive it every day. The movie deserves better than a stock romantic ending, Mr. Aronofsky. (Do you do everything the 19th century tells you to do?)
The rest of the movie is pretty great—barring that Natalie Portman's arms are about as balletic as Lisa Simpson's. All the action takes place on the female body: disgusting ripples of gooseflesh popping up all over, black needly feathers tearing out of bloody scratches, whites of eyes going red, feet webbing. A close-up sequence of Portman mangle-prepping a pointe shoe brings to mind Coco Chanel mutilating her constricting lingerie in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky earlier this year. (In neither film is it a simple case of either you burn the bra or the bra burns you—well, at least until the end here.)
Up and up and up the tension climbs toward the climactic minutes, when the dressing-room drama steams up simultaneously with opening night onstage—this is still a dance movie, y'all. A dance movie with a mysterious pool of nail-polish- looking blood backstage. Is Nina a murderer? Has she committed matricide? (Black Swan has mother-daughter violence that'd make Mommie Dearest scream for her life.) Sister-cide, maybe? Also an option. Every woman in the movie sees every other woman as an extension of her own despised self. Nina never, of course, considers director-cide (the manipulative Picasso-lite is played with kitschy yumminess by fun Frenchman Vincent Cassel).
'Tis the season of movies made by men about women (see Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls). Maybe Aronofsky didn't mean to get political, to get down with the whole history of women doing backbreaking labor that's societally invisible, but he did open up the ballet music box and set the creepy figurine spinning. Suicide: Don't do it.