Lowering the barre
Black Swan, psychological thriller, rated R, 2.5 chiles
Darren Aronofsky has a thing about pain. In Requiem for a Dream and last year’s The Wrestler, he threw down the gauntlet: his movies are not for the faint of heart or the weak of liver. His penchant for making audiences squirm is a matter of record. And for a director with this fixation, the emotional and physical brutality of the world of ballet is a match made in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods of heaven. Bloody toes, cracked nails, ripped cuticles, busted fingers, dislocated joints, broken bones — it’s pro wrestling in tights. Which pro wrestling also has, come to think of it.
The story he tells here is a familiar one: the artist pushed to madness and death by the demands of artistic perfection. Vincent Van Gogh. Antonin Artaud. Edgar Allan Poe. Victoria Page. Who? Victoria Page, the character played by Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes, the classic ballet film about a dancer driven to madness and death in the pursuit of artistic perfection.
Not that recycling a plot in any way disqualifies a film. If that were the case, you could throw out most of the movies since the Lumière brothers. The only thing we ask of a movie, or any other work of art, is that it captivate us. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again, loses girl again — throw in a “Call me but love and I’ll be new baptiz’d,” and you’ve got Romeo and Juliet. Variations on that theme have been used from time to time, and nobody complains.
In Black Swan, Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin give us Nina (Natalie Portman), a virginal young ballerina rising in the ranks of a top New York company. When the company’s autocratic impresario and choreographer Thomas Leroy (a superbly saturnine Vincent Cassel) decides to “reimagine” Swan Lake, casting the same dancer in the roles of the pure and virtuous White Swan and the down and dirty Black Swan, his calculating eye falls on Nina.
She fills the bill in the first case. She’s all technique, a gym rat of a dancer raised to follow the dream by her overprotective stage mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer who had to give it up when she got pregnant and has been grooming her daughter to conquer the heights she never scaled. Nina’s a bit of a goody-two-shoes, although she does indulge in a little idolatrous theft of souvenirs from a star dancer. She may be sexually frigid, but then again she’s never really tried it. She’s got her ballet technique down pretty well, but she doesn’t seem to have the temperament that makes a star.
“If it were just the White Swan,” Leroy tells Nina, “I would have no hesitation in casting you.” But can she loosen up enough to play the seductive Black Swan? Leroy makes a pass at her to see if he can light a fire in her libido. She turns him down, but in a way that intrigues the choreographer, and she gets the nod.
From there on things escalate giddily, through selfmutilation, autoeroticism, lesbian ecstasy, stabbings, schizophrenia, feathers, and various other flights of eye-popping excess. You can’t tell fact from fantasy without a scorecard, and there’s no scorecard.
Mila Kunis arrives as an appealingly slutty Lily, a dancer just off the plane from naughty San Francisco who has what it takes temperamentally for the Black Swan, and Winona Ryder turns in a scary bit as Beth MacIntyre, Leroy’s former mistress and prima ballerina who is being shunted aside from both bed and boards to make room for the new generation and does not go gently.
One of the problems Black Swan gives itself is the casting of a non-dancer in a dancer’s role. Portman gave up dance training in her early teens, and for this role she threw herself back into it with a vengeance. But Zelda Fitzgerald tried that, too. At that age it doesn’t work out. Portman is a formidable actress, and she does a creditable job with the dance moves, considering, but you can’t help noticing that you’re only seeing her dance from the waist up, undulating her swanlike arms. Fred Astaire famously insisted on being filmed en entier in his dance scenes, because, as he said, “I dance with my whole body.” The kind of camera selectivity Aronofsky uses here draws attention to the sham, as it did in Rob Marshall’s overpraised Chicago.
It may be that only dancers and devotees of the ballet will be bothered by the shortchanging on that end. But the gathering hysteria of the story provides equal opportunity to the audience at large. If you’re willing to give yourself up to the over-the-top shamelessness of Aronofsky’s hyperbolic vision, and you enjoy a little bloodbath with your ballet, Black Swan can deliver the kind of captivating involvement that makes a movie fun, in a campy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls sort of way. That may not be the reaction the director was aiming for, but then who of us really knows what Aronofsky was aiming for?
Giving in to the dark side: Natalie Portman
The Red Shoes
after a couple of red eyes: