Low­er­ing the barre

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Jonathan Richards I For The New Mex­i­can

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:

Black Swan

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