Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill
dancing in the Bible
EFFECTS OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE——sexual repression, perfectionism, self-loathing, self-harm, flashbacks, etc.
SELF-MUTILATION—Help for Cutters (and others who self-injure in some way)
GAY—What’s wrong with being gay? Answer
What about gays needs to change? Answer
It may not be what you think.
Read stories about those who have struggled with homosexuality
dangers of living an unbalanced life
dangers of perfectionism
parents who are overly controlling or overly pressuring their children
how to handle suicidal thoughts and impulses
pressures of getting older as a dancer
sexual harrassment in the workplace
|Featuring:||Natalie Portman (Nina), Mila Kunis (Lilly), Winona Ryder (Beth MacIntyre), Vincent Cassel (Thomas Leroy), Barbara Hershey (Erica), Toby Hemingway (Tom), more »|
|Director:||Darren Aronofsky—“The Wrestler,” “The Fountain,” “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream”|
|Producer:||Fox Searchlight Pictures, Protozoa Pictures, Phoenix Pictures, Cross Creek Pictures, Jon Avnet, more »|
|Distributor:||Fox Searchlight Pictures|
“from the director of ‘The Wrestler’ and ‘Requiem for a Dream’”
Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film, “The Wrestler” had the kind of grip a movie about wrestling ought to have. It packed a punch, because it was rooted in realism, a realism that sometimes went beyond real into the realm of the surreal. But the story of a wrestler, whose considerable talent and courage was not enough to save him from a life bent on self-destruction, kept a hold on its audience even up to and after its over-reaching finale. The story and the character, played magnificently by Mickey Rourke, had me too transfixed, too engrossed, and, yes, too resigned to the hero’s fate to let the disappointment over Rourke’s inevitable fall follow me out of the theater. I felt as invigorated as I felt saddened. The fighter’s effort was certainly worth the try.
I had no such feeling as I watched Aronofsky’s new film, “The Black Swan”. The movie has a remarkable ending. It’s not unlike the ending of “The Wrestler.” Both end with an arm spreading dive. The last scenes of “The Black Swan” comprise a visual tour de force whose dark depths and hyperkinetic spirals are almost a match for Tchaikovsky’s haunting score. Unfortunately, the film falls apart long before the closing segment, and those final moments don’t generate quite enough steam to save the movie. Everything that precedes the ending is dense, claustrophobic, and weighed down by so much high minded cynicism and pretentious artifice that it never gets off the ground. That’s deadly for a movie about dancing which ought to be light on its feet.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a member of the ballet corps of a fictional company that bears more than a passing resemblance to the New York City Ballet with its cutting edge artistry, hard driving competition, unquenchable thirst for funding, and titillating back stage drama. An aging ballerina named Beth (played in grandiose train wreck fashion by Winona Ryder) is a brilliant dancer. She’s temperamental and unpredictable. That’s okay. She has aged a bit. That’s not okay.
The dance company director, Thomas Leroy (played with Mephistophelean charm and cunning by French actor, Vincent Cassel), wants to do yet another production of “Swan Lake,” but this time he wants to strip it of its bloated sentimentality and strip it down to its bear essentials. Sure, he’s full of hot air, but Cassel makes him and the project he’s toting believable, even interesting. He wants to cast a newer, younger Swan, one that he can mold and control both on and off the stage. He sees something in Nina that every impresario in every back stage movie sees in his ingénue. “Kid, you’re going out there a chorus girl, but you’re coming back a star.” I apologize for lumping ballerinas with Broadway hoofers, but the hoofer’s mark is where “The Black Swan” lands, or drops itself, with more of a thud than a pointe.
Cassel trains Nina, but he also seduces her. The other dancers warn her that he’s a creep, but Nina disregards them, because Leroy “is a genius.” For Nina, her impresario’s artistry and high IQ trump his selfishness and lagging moral compass. She’ll make a bargain with the devil to get the plum role that only he can place within her reach. She’s also a sad, fatherless child who seems to be in desperate need of a paternal figure.
Nina seems to have no friends inside or outside the corps. Another dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), tries to befriend her, but only as a means of usurping her and stealing the part of the Swan from her. Lily does little to conceal her intent, but Nina nonetheless plays along. Lily takes her out for drinks the night before a performance, spikes Nina’s drink with a drug (Nina sees her do it), sets her up with two unseemly guys whom she has sex with, and attempts to seduce Nina herself. Other than that, she’s a swell friend. (“A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet,” Proverbs 29:5). I found myself wondering if, indeed, Lily wouldn’t have actually been a much better Black Swan. Tchaikovsky’s evil bird has a sting to match its song; Nina has the song down, but she can’t find the sting. Lily has it in spades.
With the Nina-Lily relationship, Aronofsky has borrowed another ingénue story from the Hollywood files: the one about the ambitious unknown who waits in the wings and is ready to step on and over the star, in order to become the new star, a tale told best in the Joseph Mankiewicz’ 1950 film, “All About Eve.” “The Black Swan” doesn’t hold up under the spotlight of that earlier classic. In “All About Eve,” the aging theater star, Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and the relentlessly ambitious rising one, Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter) were equally matched in star power and star venom. Nina, on the other hand, is overshadowed by everyone around her. She can’t find an opening anywhere. Several reviewers have called Aronofsky’s film a cross between “…Eve” and the 1948 British film, “The Red Shoes.” “…Swan” takes elements from both movies, but those elements don’t gel. I thought I was watching a camp parody of those classics. The more “…Swan” dragged on, the more I longed for the originals.
“The Red Shoes” is still the quintessential movie about ballet. It’s always a hard sell to get an audience to understand how a ballet dancer is able to give up everything: comfort, love, even life itself, for the sake of what appears to be an ethereal art, but the symbol of those seemingly innocent, inanimate scarlet slippers taking on a life of their own, and taking over the life of their owner puts the glory and the danger of that dream into clear perspective. Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), the ballerina in “The Red Shoes”, lived and worked under the spell of an impresario, but she had her own life as well. She had fallen in love with a composer, and she had to decide between marriage and a career as a dancer. Nina is a young woman who seems to have nothing to live for when the curtain comes down. Her home is a small Upper West Side apartment that she shares with her single mother, a failed ballerina who smothers her daughter with childlike affection and barely concealed hostility.
Barbara Hershey plays the mother, and she gives the best performance in the film. You can see in her face how pride and resentment go hand in hand, and how she disdains her own eye for talent, the eye that lets her see that her daughter has the talent that she had always craved for herself. Natalie Portman is getting all the kudos for her performance as Nina. She deserves them. She gives a good performance, and she dances quite well, but Hershey is the real actress. I can’t put into words what makes a great performance, but I can point to Hershey’s here, and to those in several of her other films, and say that’s one.
Aronofsky has saddled his film with a lot of psychological, you could also say psycho, baggage. Nina’s dilemmas are harder to figure out than a Rubik’s cube, because you’re never quite sure if something is really happening or if that something is only an illusion that goes on inside Nina’s unbalanced head. Nina has a life that exists between two points: the rehearsal room balance bar and her pink and white bedroom that is full of stuffed animals. Who wouldn’t be neurotic going back and forth between those two extremes, on the New York City subway, no less. She imagines a lot of things, and it gets harder and harder to distinguish between the real and the imagined.
The plot is not rooted in anything that can grab you or make you feel for Nina, the way you could feel for Mickey Rourke’s desperate, but very real, character in “The Wrestler”. Nina’s transformation from baby doll to temptress coincides with her move from the real world to a fantasy one. After awhile it’s hard to distinguish one world form the other, and, ultimately, it’s hard to feel anything for her. Does Nina really dance the black swan? Does she kill her rival? Does she wound herself when she goes on a rampage in her dressing room? Does the prince really drop her at the end of the first act? Whose fault was THAT? And what’s the fallout? No heads rolling? I guess not, but at this point my own head is rolling, and reeling. I wonder if I’m going crazy. too. And that, I believe, is what Aranofsky has in mind. He doesn’t want to just take us inside his characters’ heads, he wants us to live inside that head, too—feel the pain, do the drug, take the dive.
The film’s nudity is moderate, but there are scenes of masturbation and sex between women, badly photographed and badly edited. The language is often coarse. There are, also, scenes of physical mutilation and blood letting. Bleeding extremities are no shock in a movie about dancing, but Nina suffers from an ugly rash that keeps popping up under her scapula. She may or may not be scratching it; maybe that too is all in her mind. But enough of the “maybe it’s real, maybe it’s not” stuff. The movie is one big rash, one that is best left alone.
Violence: Heavy / Profanity: Heavy to extreme—“Jesus” (2), “Jesus Christ” (1), “Oh my G*d” (2), “f” words (16), various vulgar words for male and female genitals, “s” words (2), *ss (2) / Sex/Nudity: Heavy to extreme—Portman stripped naked to panties / Portman wears just a towel / two female masturbation scenes (Portman) / male gropes Portman / female gropes Portman / female gropes male dancer / prolonged lesbian sex scene (Portman and Kunis) / vulgar sexual conversations / partially undressed female dancers / etc.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.