Only true love can break the spell. So it goes in the libretto for Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, the source material for two wildly different films. I’ve come up with some odd pairings in this series before, but this one might be the most perverse yet. What does a psychosexual horror film have in common with an animated musical princess movie? What would the Venn diagram for these movies’ audiences look like? Watching them back-to-back, while it might cause some whiplash, illustrates the richness of folk tales, their capacity to inspire people in very different ways. Mostly, though, I used this latest occasion watching them to mark a turning point in my own development as an attentive viewer. For one of these movies, the spell has been broken.
Black Swan takes the doppelganger idea from Swan Lake and molds from it a story of identity and performance. Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) is a ballerina trying out for the two main roles in the ballet. She naturally masters the role of the “White Swan,” a princess transformed by a sorcerer, but can’t get a handle on the evil impostor, the “Black Swan.” Fixated on perfect technique, she burrows deep into the particulars of the part, tapping into a dark side she didn’t know she had. This leads to a psychic split, projected as a rivalry with a more licentious dancer (played by Mila Kunis). The fragmenting of good and evil in Nina’s performance, which becomes her life, goes about as well for her as it did for Dr. Jekyll.
This film is a dreamlike exploration of the female psyche, continuing the cinematic tradition of Bergman’s Persona, Altman’s 3 Women and Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. These are movies made by men looking at women and trying to understand them. In this case, it’s Darren Aronofsky looking at women in the entertainment industry — their tooth-and-nail struggles (mostly “nail” here) to reach the top, and the inevitability of their fall when they get too old (there’s a little of All About Eve in this, too). Special notice is paid to the physical toll of performance. Ballet was certainly the best example to use, with its intense physical demands employed in the search for ultimate beauty. There’s a little bit of Cronenbergian body horror in this film — a woman looking in a mirror and finding something terribly wrong — but most of the terror is hallucinatory. The enveloping sound design (by Brian Emrich and Craig Henighan) creates a looming presence over the film, confining the audience to Nina’s headspace. The handheld camerawork of cinematographer Matthew Libatique creates a potent “stalking” effect. It also makes each point on the screen look like something glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. Strange things appear for a second and are then immediately doubted. The film gradually descends from realism to fantasy (or madness, if you prefer). Portman commands this transition with some phenomenal work, a performance that’s an essay on power, repression, and vulnerability. Aronofsky gets to explore two of his favorite themes, obsession and mortality, with this tale of sacrificing everything for the sake of art.
The Swan Princess was released in 1994, the year that The Lion King became the highest-grossing animated film in history, thus capping the “Disney Renaissance.” The director, Richard Rich, had himself worked for Disney in the 80s, directing The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron before leaving to start his own animation studio. David Zippel, the film’s lyricist, later wrote lyrics for Disney’s Hercules and Mulan. With all this in mind, it’s no surprise that The Swan Princess is a thoroughgoing “Disneyfication” of Swan Lake. The allusions are numerous. It’s impossible to look at this film’s “Black Swan” without thinking of “Vanessa” from The Little Mermaid. From Beauty and the Beast this film borrows the theme of looking past outer beauty to see the person within. To the filmmakers’ credit, however, they’re not just piggybacking on recent successes. They reach all the way back to Sleeping Beauty (the arranged marriage; the prince and princess dancing among pastel clouds; the villain transforming into a monster for the prince to slay) and Cinderella (a ball wherein dozens of eligible maidens are trotted out for the prince’s inspection, this time with a song that’s reminiscent of “Beautiful Girl” from Singin’ in the Rain). But there’s nothing particularly distinctive about the film. It’s just a decent imitation of a Disney princess movie.
After my long marathon through the Disney animated canon two years ago, imitations like this just look cheap by comparison. This was my first time watching The Swan Princess in seven or eight years. Back then, I considered it one of my favorite movies of all time. My reasons had to do with not being pigeonholed with simplistic gender stereotypes. As a safety net, I could point to the “catch-and-fire” routine as an example of super-cool masculinity among all the lovey-dovey stuff. I still think this open-minded attitude was good for my development into a well-rounded adult, but it looks unnecessary now that I’ve seen a few more movies. This film isn’t that great. I like the same things about it now that I did a decade ago — the battle with the “Great Animal” is still pretty thrilling, the music is catchy, there’s some humor (although I’m sure I found it funnier as a child). The filmmakers were overachieving when they selected voice talent for the film. Jack Palance as Rothbart, comedian Steven Wright as “Speed” the turtle, and John Cleese as Jean-Bob the frog, are all terrific in roles that don’t ask for much. But the backbone of the story is a depressingly familiar romantic comedy. The prince and princess hate each other as kids; when they reach physical maturity they look at each other, go “Whoa!” and decide to get married; she balks when he can’t say one good thing about her besides “You’re beautiful”; then she’s turned into a swan and wants him again because he’s the only one who can save her. There’s not much of a character arc here — more like characters following the whims of the plot. The ending still works, though. The prince effectively says, “I’ve always loved you. It’s just that I was young and stupid before.” This is a credible sentiment.
Trading The Swan Princess for Black Swan is about far more than growing out of G-rated cinema and into R-rated cinema. I’m able to watch movies much more closely now than I could in the past. Looking beyond surface pleasures like story and performance (both very important, don’t get me wrong), I can get into the underlying psychology, themes, and craftsmanship. It can be disappointing at first to find out a movie that I used to love doesn’t hold up that well, but it proves that this whole “discernment” thing is working. The journey is made much more fun by unexpected landmarks such as this.