Pointe of madness

Black Swan exposes the seamy, steamy underbelly of life in a ballet company

by Syd M
December 23, 2010 12:22 PM | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is part melodrama, part horror movie: a dark Gothic tale of obsession, madness and fragility as personified by Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a young ballerina with a New York ballet company. Nina’s years of dedication, of pain and practice and singleminded pursuit of perfection come to fruition when she is offered the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake. In this reimagined take on Tchaikovsky’s classic, Nina will play dual roles: the tragic white swan, and her evil twin the black swan.

The ballet company’s artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) likes to seduce his prima ballerinas; Nina’s fragile ego and timid demeanor leave her ill-prepared for his mind games. Further complicating her ascendancy are a free-spirited (i.e. slutty) new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who has black wings tattooed on her back, and Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), the bitter ballerina forced into retirement and cruelly cast aside by Thomas. Nina’s mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) messes with her head, too: She’s a former ballerina who now lives through Nina’s career, and she is by turns smothering and supportive, controlling and caring.

Working from a script by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, Aronofsky transcends the backstage drama clichés: the professional and sexual rivals, the imperious director, the controlling stage mother, the dressing-room treachery. He also embraces those clichés, and the ballet-specific ones too, focusing on the pain and physical suffering endured by Nina – the ugly wounds that seem a requisite part of producing beauty in ballet (starvation, broken toes).

There’s more than the usual pain for Nina: strange, grotesque wounds, mysterious scratches that appear on her back, fingers that bleed and peel. She hears voices. She sees doppelgangers, mirror images, twins, and encounters new parts of herself. She is consumed by her role as the Swan Queen; the transformation is destroying her physically and mentally.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique shot the movie with a handheld camera using grainy film stock and video, giving the images both intimacy and a sense of being off-balance, a little dizzy and disturbed. The camera frequently follows Nina closely from behind, seeing what she sees, as she sees it, and experiencing dance through her. The technique adds emphasis to what is really going on in Black Swan: As the spinning, pirouetting dancer spins out of control, she loses her grip on what’s real and what’s not (leading up to a trippy triple-twist of an ending). Once the movie slips inside Nina’s mind, it takes flight. Pain, sex, fear, repression, ecstasy, blood, violence – there’s a dark malevolence to Black Swan, a vision of art as more than suffering. This is art as simultaneous self-creation and self-destruction.

As a dancer, Portman is good enough to pass, and she’s terrific as the timorous, tremulous, repressed Nina. Nina is a difficult character – one who is largely passive, absorbing praise, criticism, love, hatred. She dances perfectly but, as Thomas tells her, without passion. She pours her passion into being a perfect dancer, but there’s nothing left for the stage, or for her life offstage.

Black Swan inevitably calls to mind Powell and Pressburger’s exquisite The Red Shoes (1948), another ballet movie in which life imitates art. It also calls to mind Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler, and his first, Pi. Aronofsky specializes in obsession, self-inflicted pain, madness and characters driven to extremes in pursuit of big dreams. What Black Swan is not is a rarefied or reverent look at the world of ballet. It depicts ballet, or at least this ballet company, as crushing, cutthroat, mutilating and emotionally and physically brutal – no place for a good girl who still sleeps in a pink bedroom full of toys.

Black Swan is sometimes shocking, sometimes sexy, funny and moving. As he often does, Aronofsky successfully mixes highbrow and low art in Black Swan, to make a psycho-horror drama that doubles as ravishing art-house artist’s tragedy.

@ Syd M

Syd’s pick: From Darren Aronofsky’s back catalogue: The Wrestler

There are unexpected similarities between Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Black Swan: Both movies dabble in genres with well-worn plots and abundant clichés to tell stories of performers who excel at pretending but don’t do reality well. The two movies might make an interesting double feature.

The Wrestler trades in the kind of sweet sentimentality and hokeyness that one expects from a tale of redemption. Randy “the Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a hard-living, has-been pro wrestler (whose career peaked sometime in the ‘80s), has fallen on hard times. There are familiar elements in The Wrestler: in Randy’s hopes for a big comeback match, in his effort to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and to connect with a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). The movie follows Randy around through a grubby, grim New Jersey of parking lots, trailer parks and dollar stores, strip clubs and impromptu wrestling arenas.

The whole movie has a weary, bleak, beleaguered look to it, and the mood is consistently downbeat instead of falsely hopeful or triumphant. Aronofsky manages, for the most part, to push through the phony stuff in The Wrestler to find a hard, battered reality.

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