I thought I knew most of the things I had to know about Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” Watching the film the other night was in some ways an unnerving experience, coming a few days after I saw the most mesmerizing film of the season, Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours.” In a capsule, I really didn’t like the first half of “Black Swan” but by time the credits started to roll, I had become a convert, literally applauding with a few others in audience.
To many film buffs, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s balletic drama or narrative poem “Swan Lake” and its famous waltzes, czardas and tarantellas are a familiar stage fare and a part of their DVD collection. I’m still checking on whether I have this right: that Tchaikovsky, pressed for time because of a scheduled trip to the United States in 1876, composed “Swan Lake” in just two weeks — this classic piece of music that according to a critic “hardly contains any false note.”
That I saw “Black Swan” days after watching a highly spirited and performance of “Don Quixote,” another much-loved ballet among Russians, seems to have put me in the mood to once more enjoy a work of the celebrated Bolshoi Ballet duo, Ludwig Minkus the composer and Marius Petipa the choreographer – who enshrined both works in the pantheon of ballet classics. Combine this with the barrage of news on the highlights and sidelights of the 2011 Oscars race –- particularly the attention on the very pregnant Best Actress nominee Natalie Portman –- and you can see how my expectations were running high.
***SPOILER ALERT: This review may contain details that could spoil your viewing pleasure.***
But expectations are made to be broken, and this movie did the work early. “Black Swan” was neither a movie about dancers and the art of the ballet that I had in mind, nor about prima ballerinas, their steamy rivalries and the men who covet them. Instead, it’s intensely focused on Nina Sayers (Portman), a ballerina who’s nearing her top form. Very early on, Nina shows symptoms of being on the verge of a breakdown as the facetious and demanding artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) starts choosing the dancer who will dance the role of the Swan Queen. He has just fired the aging diva, Beth Macintyre (Winona Rider), and now the “throne” is empty.
But all is not well with Nina. She seems to have hurt a finger and blood occasionally oozes out of the nail’s cuticle. Her mother Erika (Barbara Hershey), herself a danseuse who gave up a promising career to have a baby, notices fresh scratches on her shoulder blade, the trail of blood suggesting that fingernails had scraped the skin. Clips of Nina’s graceful fluttering of her arms to simulate bird flight and her not-so-spectacular lifts and jetes with her partners present her as a competent dancer. She wins the part without much resistance or critique from anyone. Then, as abruptly, she finds “WHORE” scribbled on the toilet mirror, taunting and intimidating her.
We get more evidence that Nina’s world is far removed from real world of ballet dancers. The air is thick with intrigue, in fact with weirdness. All these originate from her, and we can’t really explain why. Whenever she locks the toilet door, I expected her to stick a finger into her throat in a bulimic ritual, or stick a needle into her arm. She does neither. When she is with her co-dancers, she scans them obsessively to single out who may be dancing better than her and winning points from the director. Yet, she should really be at ease because signals are rife that she, and nobody else, has Thomas’s vote.
At home, we find her mother bereft of warmth and affection and adept in emotional blackmail. When Nina refuses to have a bite of a tempting frosted cake to celebrate her winning the plum role, the the Slavic beauty Erica steps to the trashcan in a flash, ready to discard the cake. Nina, helpless as always, gives in. The city where she lives is hardly a hospitable place. Riding the train one night, a distinguished-looking old pervert rubs his crotch in rhythmic glee while making eyes at her. She looks the other way.
The weirdness peaks in the scene where her director Thomas invites her for a drink in his uptown apartment. The drink served, he is soon asking her about her desires, her sex life. Nina is embarrassed. “I should be able to talk about sex anytime with you,” he says, breaking every law against the sexual harassment of employees on both sides of the Atlantic. “Go home and touch yourself,” he prescribes — the oddest line of the film. Later, Nina finally shows her aggressive and defiant side, accepting an invitation to go out to a bar and a neo-disco and engaging an attractive bisexual man in a wanton foreplay. And later, she exceeds Thomas’s advice as she and co-dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), whom she suspects of trying to put her down and steal her role, do a steamy lesbian lovemaking session.
This film being a takeoff on “Swan Lake,” it does succumb to the temptation of exploiting the built-in rivalry between the white Swan Queen and the Black Swan. The tension is sparked by Nina’s inability to deliver the erotic “bite” (Thomas’s word) of the villainess from the netherworld, who impersonates the Swan Queen in a palace feast where she wins the heart of the Prince. In every major ballet presentation, the standard procedure is to pick an alternate to the lead, since in ballet as in every show, anything can happen. This fact seems to be lost on Nina, who indulges in a paranoid and masochistic exercise when an alternate, Lily, is picked, even confronting Thomas about it. At this point, it is clear that if there is any dancer in the troupe who should not be dancing the lead role, it’s Nina Sayers.
Diva has-been’s suicide attempt
The movie seems to morph into a more humanly believable drama when increasingly psychotic ex-diva Beth flings herself on to a moving vehicle and ends up in metal braces, a pathetic paraplegic. This doesn’t happen. Instead the tragedy triggers a series of shocking images that propel the film to a disturbing end. The melodrama in the script is paralleled by an accepted variation in the ballet narrative’s climax. In the original scenario, the white swan Odette (Odile being the impostor princess) suffers from a broken heart that kills her while she drowns in the lake, taking Prince Siegfried with her. At some point in the history of the ballet, an avant-garde interpreter reworked Odette’s fate, making her climb up a cliff where she flings herself to her death. This is the version that Thomas prefers, but while it makes a more resonant finale, it still smacks of melodrama and downgrades the “apotheosis” that brings down the curtain.
“Black Swan” or more precisely its creators have exploited “Swan Lake” liberally to make the film what it actually is: not a straight drama but a suspense fantasy, a psychological thriller posing as a story of dancers and their conflicts. There is only one conflict here: the chronic battle in the mind of Nina between fantasy and reality. I was expecting another version of “The Turning Point” (with Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bankroft) or “Ballet Shoes” (with Emma Watson).
Aronofsky was intent on playing a dizzying and thrilling game of neurotic hide-and-seek. Nina’s imaginings are hardly the reflection of a real-world dancer’s insecurities, but a cinematic exercise aided by a minimum of special effects and snappy editing, combined with sound tricks and shocking images, down to the shards of glass imbedded in the flesh and the guts. In concept and execution, “Black Swan” shows that he is a brilliant pupil of Italy’s master showman of kitsch and psycho-horror, Dario Argento, whose “Suspiria” (1977, with Jessica Harper as a ballet dancer ) and “The Stendahl Syndrome” (1996, with daughter Asia Argento as a police detective –- my review @ http://bit.ly/96mifS) still intrigue us today with their hallucination-prone heroines.
If in “Swan Lake” the author of Prince Siegfried’s vain fantasies and his ultimate deception is the sorcerer/demon Rothbart and the other victim the swan princess, in “Black Swan” the one with the magic wand is director Aronofsky himself, armed with the screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz, while the willing victim and his co-conspirator is Nina/Portman.
Only with a second viewing could a moviegoer identify which scenes of the movie belong to the conventional narrative and which ones are the products of Nina’s feverish imagination. A towering Cassel — a major name in France but until now cast only in supporting roles in English-language movies (such as “Ocean’s Eleven”) — cuts an earthy and implacable Thomas, and the appealing Kunis as Lily makes a perfect and sane counterpoint to Nina even as her role as the villainess and pretender to the throne, the stage Black Swan, borders on the ambiguous.
But the commanding presence is that of Portman. I remember her as a nondescript teen in Woody Allen’s musical “Everybody Says I Love You” (this girl doesn’t have a great future in the movies, I remember thinking). And I only vaguely recall her role as Princess Padme Amidala in the latter “Star Wars” movies, where she is upstaged by her extravagant Kabuki-inspired kimonos. Her breakthrough was the role of a platinum-blonde stripper in “Closer” with Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Wilson. But it is only with this film that she has presented herself to us as a compleat, totally dedicated actress.
In “Black Swan” she uses every physical feature — from her expressive eyes and eyebrows down to her calloused, curling toes — to deliver a perfect profile and the living presence of a ballerina going through psychotic tempests. Portman delineates the character with great intelligence and bravura — first a passive victim of her social milieu, progressing into a defiant, sexually unshackled woman. So in the end, when she lies in agony, her tutu stained with blood (real? imagined?), we feel not only her pain but also the tortured past that we had to go through with her. Whether she is at this moment the Queen Swan or the Black Swan doesn’t matter. We have become, in effect, her avid admirer, her gullible prince — and the sorcerer’s apprentice.