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For Your Consideration: 'Black Swan'

Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to The Wrestler, was a sleeper that caught fire with some critics -- look at the raves by Manohla Dargis, Roger Ebert, Ann Hornaday, Steven Rea, and others -- and has ridden good ticket sales to likely Oscar contention. Soon other opinions surfaced, expressed by dance critics like Sarah Kaufman and film critics who actually know something about ballet like David Denby, that the film traded in the worst clichés about ballet. Having now seen the film for myself, my vote goes to the negative reviews. Yes, the film is mostly enjoyable to watch, a suspenseful and stylish thriller, but it teeters on the edge of becoming absurdist kitsch. Is it really worth the popular culture's fickle attention being temporarily fixed on ballet -- witness Jim Carrey's hilarious spoof of the film on Saturday Night Live -- if this is the impression of the art form that so many people receive as their only exposure to it?

Natalie Portman is beautiful, fragile, and crazy-eyed as Nina, a ballerina in the corps of a company based at Lincoln Center who dreams of having a shot at a starring role. The character is part Victoria Page, the starry-eyed innocent in The Red Shoes, and part the hysterical, sexually repressed governess of Henry James's ghost tale The Turn of the Screw. Thomas Leroy, the imperious choreographer of a new production of Swan Lake, has found Nina's dancing perfect for Odette, the pure innocent girl turned into a swan in the ballet. He has doubts that she can also be believable as Odette's doppelgänger, Odile, the daughter of the evil magician who pretends to be Odette to trick the prince who is in love with her. As Nina struggles to draw out her darker, sexually predatory side, an evil version of herself seems to become more and more separate and real, haunting and even threatening to replace her. Rather than the subtle, ambiguous tension in that Henry James story, for example, Aronofsky and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, create a lurid, color-manipulating atmosphere that shocks rather than unsettles.

Losing its way trying to achieve that potentially ingenious idea of life imitating art, the screenplay -- story attributed to Andrés Heinz, screenplay credit shared with Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin -- pinballs among every tired preconception about ballet. Ballet dancers are ruthless backstabbers angling for glory, so Nina obsesses about competition for the role from an exotic and sexually open newcomer, Lily, played with unctuous menace by Mila Kunis (ironically, perhaps best known for being the voice of ugly duckling Meg Griffin on Family Guy). Choreographers always award lead roles to the dancers who have sex with them, and the company's director, Thomas (played by the vicious-faced Vincent Cassel -- "the only straight French dance choreographer in the world," as the Saturday Night Live skit puts it), is apparently always on the prowl, especially after dumping his previous and now aging star, Beth (a spiteful Winona Ryder, incarnating the bitterness of countless aging former starlets in Hollywood). Ballet dancers' obsessions with being thin lead to eating disorders, so we see Nina refusing to eat and making herself purge. Ballet mothers are controlling martinets who try to realize their own broken dreams in the person of their daughters, so Nina's mother, played with creepy single-mindedness by the laser-focused Barbara Hershey, holds authority over every inch of Nina's body.

By comparison to a much greater ballet film, Mao's Last Dancer, released earlier this year, the ballet sequences are decidedly unglamorous and uninteresting. This is in spite of the believability of Portman as a ballet dancer, able to perform some basic moves after a lifetime of amateur dancing and rigorous pre-film training that she says fundamentally changed her body. It is almost as if we are to think that the only interest in ballet is from the perspective of the dancer, so little do we see the perspective of a viewer, which is of course what makes ballet so addictive. The (false) association of the film with a "legitimate" high art form might help its cause among Academy voters, but it really does nothing to help ballet's cause. In the most cringe-inducing scene of the film, Nina and Lily are hit on by two men in a bar, part of Lily's campaign to loosen up Nina. When Nina awkwardly tries to talk to one of the men about ballet, she crashes and burns, only to be saved by Lily, who wisely says only that she is "a dancer." Even in the hyper-fantasized world of Black Swan, there is obviously nothing cool about ballet.

This film is currently showing at E Street Cinema and other area theaters.


CMrok93 said...

Creepy, tense, but at the same time utterly beautiful thanks to an amazing performance from Portman, that sure should win her an Oscar.

jfl said...

See Apollinaire Scholl's review in the FT:

"getting banged in a club bathroom by a couple of drunken lads [does not a convincing ballet-movie make]"

Charles T. Downey said...

Hahaha -- great review in the FT (many thanks for that, Jens):

Aronofsky and his movie double, the ballet director, get things backwards. If Nina can do the white swan she can do anything, because the Swan Queen has an inner life. Next to that, the lessons of random sex and other experiences pale.

Scholl gives the movie one of five stars, by the way. Right on the money. No one should be getting an Oscar for this film.

Charles T. Downey said...

Also, check out this very thorough overview of ballet in the history of cinema.

John Marcher said...

Not does it fail as a ballet film, it also fails at being a creepy psychological thriller- paling alongside suchg films as Cronenberg's Spider and Polanski's Repulsion (to which Black Swan is way too reminiscent).

I'll have to watch that SNL bit. I thought the same thing about "the only straight French dance choreographer in the world." The whole film is kind of ridiculous.

Todd said...

Great review. The 'kitsch' was exactly that. Hearing Aronofsky's 'in' on this film coming from the revelation of this 'Were-swan' brought me some much needed laughs at the screening.
His sly smirk as the accolades come in gives me the sense the joke is on the Academy.

Charles T. Downey said...


New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns is dancing Odette/Odile right now. She answered questions about the real ballet -- or lack thereof -- in Black Swan for the Wall Street Journal.