After enduring a pretty thorough snubbing by many movie reviewers over the past several weeks, “Black Swan” is distancing itself from some incredible misunderstandings. It isn’t “Center Stage,” and it also isn’t the real dance world, if that’s what you’re wondering. If it had to be classified under one genre, “horror” or “psychological thriller” just might do the trick. After all, who wants to look in the mirror of a rehearsal studio and see their reflection doing something else?
When it comes down to it, “Black Swan” personifies paradox to the utmost and is a deliberately and deliciously creepy portrayal of art, illusion and Lincoln Center. At its most fundamental level, the film could be taken as the universal struggle between two opposing forces, as the “Swan Lake” plot obviously dictates. More subtly, though, the film explores the fine line between art and technique, fantasy and reality and, most prominently, freak-show megadrama and what the dance world is really like.
Aronofsky seems to have a predilection for bloody feet, cracking joints and the dramatized mutilation of pointe shoes and young women. However, Natalie Portman as the tormented ballerina Nina Sayers salvages this exaggeration beautifully, portraying the incredible struggle between perfection and carnal instinct unflinchingly and saving the movie from two-dimensional, soap-opera campiness by extension. (For more of this camp-oriented discussion, see Dennis Lim’s review on Slate.com.)
For dancers, “Black Swan” offers up some additional pleasures. Broken toenails and blistered feet from pointe shoes? Been there, done that, as have many bunheads in the audience. However, being afforded a zoomed-in, slowed-down view of the mechanics of a pointe-shoed foot during fouette turns is pretty awesome. Another interesting trick comes during a turn sequence, when the camera is whipped around, then focused on a still point, mimicking a dancer spotting turns. It’s fun to see these simple bits of a dancer’s existence blown up and glorified on the silver screen, even if I can’t pull a feather from my shoulder blade or sprout wings during “Swan Lake” variations.
Much like the ballet, “Black Swan” demands a certain suspension of reality in exchange for the telling of a story. The first mistake of an audience would be to take the film too literally, although the premise of the movie is simple enough. An unidentified company, facing financial problems and dwindling attendance, has “Swan Lake” slated for the season’s performances. Nina, a soloist in the company, is chosen for the role of Swan Queen, allowing Portman to explore the extreme duality of the dichotomous character. Some of the most interesting casting is less obvious, though. Director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) holds incredible sway over Nina as both the prince and the sorcerer. Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) dances her last season with the company and personifies the Dying Swan from the original ballet. Lily (Mila Kunis) doubles as Nina’s evil alternate (come on, we all have one) and the Black Swan, sauntering around with her hair down while Nina collapses in tears.
Nina’s dysfunctional relationship with both Thomas and her overprotective mother exemplifies the vulnerability inherent in the White Swan and gives Portman the opportunity to do that lovely thing she does, inviting the audience into her mind with the mental breakdowns and tendon-straining tension of her character.
Portman should be absolutely commended for this, because without her pertinacious embrace of the some of the more ridiculous facets of this movie, the swan flick wouldn’t fly. It’s extreme, it’s creepy, and, like walking down a long hallway with a stranger at the other end, it makes you want to reach for your phone or find something to laugh at. (I did actually laugh at the fantastically pedestrian “Hey” uttered by the beaked-and-winged sorcerer in the final scene.) Watching Portman delve expertly into the challenge of balancing the pristine, virginal White Swan with the seductive, demanding and dangerous Black, is a huge part of the appeal of “Black Swan.”
Mind-games and sometimes gratuitous sex scenes (between Nina and Thomas, Nina alone, Nina and Lily, Lily and Thomas … ) aside, “Black Swan” might end up being as well-watched as other classic dance flicks, although perhaps without the candy coating of some. A big potential drawback of the film is non-dancers walking away with the idea that this is how the dance world really works, invasive directors and daily meltdowns included. Hopefully the overly dramatic nature is obvious and taken with a grain of salt and the movie is enjoyed for the beautifully overblown endeavor that it is.
Interested in reading more about tortured ballerinas? Check out the New York Times’ review of the movie here. For a hilarious and utterly fabulous flow-chart about the movie, see an article on Slate.com here.