Skip to main content

Black Swan

Somehow, I don't think this ever happened to the great Pavlova.   The insecurity? Perhaps.  The starving and/or bulemia?   Maybe, regrettably.   But probably not the hallucinogenic, body-loathing freak out that besets poor Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) in Black Swan.   Welcome to a dancer's meltdown, Darren Aronofsky style.  

Some, Mr. Aronofsky included, regard Black Swan as a companion piece to the director's previous feature, The Wrestler.  Certainly, both films concern themselves with the often brutal toll taken on a body devoted to athleticism of one kind or another, whether that profession happens to involve frequently taking metal folding chairs over the head, or performing gravity-defying ballons.  

The Wrestler was a near perfect convergence of star and subject matter for Aronofsky.   Mickey Rourke,  his bulky physique and visage mutated over the years by steroids and plastic surgery, seeking professional redemption, was perfectly cast.  Both the grotesqueries of Mr. Rourke's physical being and the body-abusing nature of professional wrestling, particularly the violent sideshow minor league in which Randy "The Ram" Robinson was forced to ply his trade, seemed to fall right in Mr. Aronofsky's thematic wheelhouse.   However, The Wrestler was made as much by its quiet moments as those of the sort of physical or psychological intensity for which Aronofsky is best known.   The story and performances were allowed space to breathe.  With Black Swan, the director's obsessions run amok.  

Given all that follows, it's appropriate that Black Swan begins with a dream sequence.  Nina is on stage as the white swan, menaced by the black.   From the perspective of the latter, the hand-held camera movements are impressively fluid, swirling around the slight figure of the young dancer.   When Nina awakens, she recounts the dream, speaking in a childish near lisp, to her mother.   Beyond the dream's clear foreshadowing of the destructive battle of personalities to come, the nature of this particular mother/child relationship is quickly established as well.   Barbara Hershey is Erica Sayers, the alternately supporting and suffocating mother.  

As with Micki Rourke's appearance in The Wrestler, one can't help but wonder if Ms. Hershey's obvious plastic surgery was a factor in her casting.   Read one way, much of what we see in Black Swan is a sad testament to the disproportionate pressures placed upon women in the performing arts, those to retain youth, defy gravity, stay thin.  But read another, the toll of time  we see in Erica Sayers and the physical horrors visited upon Nina, real and imagined, would seem to serve the director's interests more than those of story or the cause of feminism. 

Both daughter and mother are thrilled and more than a little surprised when the artistic director of the ballet company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), promotes Nina to prima ballerina to dance the lead role(s) in Swan Lake.   When Nina arrives home, shortly after getting the good news, we see the relationship with her mother played out at its manipulative worst.   Erica has bought a cake to celebrate Nina's big break.   When the ever-weight-conscious Nina demurs, the hurt mother takes the cake away in a flounce and threatens to drop it in the waste basket.   Nina apologizes and offers to taste the cake, which she does, from the tip of her mother's finger dipped in the frosting.  Supportive in some ways, Erica is also clearly keeping her daughter in a dependent, child-like stasis.   She might not be the classic case of the hard driving stage mother, but as written, so much about the relationship seems cobbled together from a 100 other such situations we've seen before.

This ascension on the part of Nina is publicly acknowledged at a gala fundraiser, where the forced retirement of the company's long-standing star is also announced, much to her chagrin.  The star in decline is Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder).   Beth, her appearances brief and few, is presented in various degrees of ridiculous; she's a caricature of a boozy, embittered diva.  This can't  be blamed entirely on Ryder, nor Aronofsky for that matter.   The director has his ghoulish fun with the diva in extremis, but the clumsy fingerprints of the team the came up and wrote Black Swan are all over this non-character as they are elsewhere.  It is apparently the first full-length screenplay for all involved,  and it shows.  

After confronting Nina after the gala and making a last, sad come-on to Leroy, we later find out that Beth ran out into New York traffic, trying to catch a cab, a bus...the grill of a semi, whatever.   And she succeeds, with gruesome results.  Beth seems to exist in the story so Nina can visit her in the hospital, turn up the former prima ballerina's blanket (she's asleep at the time) and see one of her legs in a metal brace that screams "WILL NEVER DANCE AGAIN."   There is also, predictably, a ghastly wound on the same right leg.  Beth is last seen repeatedly jabbing a fingernail file into her face.   This presumably one of many delusions that jolt Nina's febrile consciousness before her scheduled debut as the star, but with Aronofsky, one never knows.

Cassel, for his part, seems to excel in more sleazy variations on caddishness, as with his work here as the manipulative Thomas, or his even more memorable performance as the sexually conflicted Russian mobster in Eastern Promises, as opposed to the more overtly tough guy shenanigans he perpetrated in the recent "Mesrine" films.   As Thomas, he's part shrink, part sexual predator, part urbane high culture schmooze.

Mila Kunis is essentially half of the black swan doppelganger haunting Nina.   As the story begins, her Lily is a newcomer to the company from San Francisco.   Thomas notes that, while lacking the technical perfection of Nina's movements, Lila moves with the sort of abandon necessary for the black swan.   This is also a convenient cover for the fact that Ms. Kunis neither looks nor moves particularly like a ballerina, much as she's light enough to be carried away by a strong wing.  But Kunis' intelligence as an actor and her slightly exotic charisma are apparent.   Like everyone else in the competitive company, Lily wants Nina's job, but the degree to which she is actively trying to sabotage the insecure prima ballerina is never clear due to Nina's delusions.  Consistent with Aronofky's sledgehammer touch, Lily is seen with black plumage tattoed onto her back as she goes down on Nina during an imagined love scene.  During the same steamy exchange, Nina looks up to see not Lily, but herself (the black swan version wears her hair down, of course).   Freaky, huh?    

Ms. Portman reportedly danced eight hours a day for a year in preparation for her work in the film.   While this may still leave her looking like an actress pretending to be a dancer, she does so passably enough to avoid distraction.   What all the training and the diet did accomplish was the reduction of her already slender figure to that of a dancer in a state of self-denial.   She certainly looks a weight-conscious ballerina whose too prominent ribs tell a disturbing tale.  Portman obviously committed to the role, mentally and physically.  

In giving her the lead role in Swan Lake, Thomas' main concern was her ability to play both the innocent white swan and the seductive black swan.   That would seem to be the main question in Ms. Portman's casting as well.  Instead of getting lost in its horror show asides, Black Swan might have proven a more interesting film if more screen time were devoted to Portman playing against type, whether on stage or off.   Instead there are just the brief glimpses of her darker twin in Nina's non-dancing hours and the culmination of all Thomas' head games and sexually suggestive exhortations, when Nina truly does become the black swan during the premiere.    Even then, Aronofsky doesn't fully trust the performance of his star.   Lest we forget she's truly given herself over to the dark side, Nina's eyes turn a demonic red before she takes the stage as the black swan.

Wherever Aronofsky and the dubious script ask her to go, from the child-like to seductively adult and lots of feverish weigh stations in between, Ms. Portman is there, believable and all in at every turn.   Black Swan will probably get award season attention that it doesn't deserve, but Portman will be worthy of the best acting nominations that seem inevitable.    

Ballet dancing is, by all accounts, a punishing pursuit.   Perhaps no art form provides a stronger  illusion in performance as to the real state of its performers.   It might be all beauty and grace on stage, but dancers are often living and working in constant pain.    There would seem to be enough unpleasant physical details in the reality of the art form to provide Aronofsky and his writers with  material on which to dwell.   And focus they certainly do on cracked toenails, sore joints and the specter of bulimia.   But wait, this being an Aronofsky film, there's much, much more.

There are the red sores on Nina's back.   This may be attributable to a nervous habit that plagues Nina in her sleep (Nina awakens one morning to find that her mother has attached oven mitts to her hands to prevent this happening).   Eventually Nina pulls something like a scale or hook out of a raw strip of flesh.   There is also the aforementioned accident to Beth and all of its gory details.  Her later creative use of the nail file is just a part of the long dark night of the psyche which occurs on Nina's debut eve.  That long sequence culminates, or bottoms out, with Nina slamming her mother's hands in her bedroom door (What DOES a girl have to do to get a little privacy?  Geez, mom!), after which her legs start to crack at all sorts of impossible angles.   But even before all that turbo insanity, when Nina stands motionless and looks into a studio mirror and sees her doppelganger scratching that afflicted back, Black Swan has inadvertently crossed over to comedy.   Call it high camp if you will, but ultimately, we're  laughing at the director, not with him.          

It's not that Aronofsky or any director should be confined to the literal when depicting a frequently delusional mind at war with itself.  Hardly.  Consider another film about a woman coming undone, Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965).   Poor sexually repressed Carole, left alone when her sister goes on vacation, comes completely unglued, a state of affairs indicated (among many signs) by a rabbit, left rotting on the kitchen counter.  Arms reach out of the walls as she weaves down a hallway, terrified.   And then she goes completely beserk and kills people.   As I remember, Polanski, who has always tread the line between art and trash  (although if his latest, Ghostwriter is any indication, he lacks the energy to produce an interesting example of either) came down on the right side of the divide.   For all the insanity taking place, both in the character's head and the decidedly non-literal way it is often expressed by the director in his use of image and sound, I don't remember Repulsion  being laughable.

I was with the Aronofsky on the dark, intense  rides that were Pi and Requiem for a Dream, not to mention his kind of Straight Story (David Lynch's 1999 change of pace, starring the late Richard Farnsworth), The Wrestler.   But he's lost me here.

Mr. Aronofsky's work doesn't lack for energy.  Purpose is another matter.  Set aside Natalie Portman's performance, essentially 108 minutes of  a bravura rodeo ride through the insane spikes and dips of this story, and you're left with a pretentious version of Showgirls.   If you want to see a feverish take on a ballet dancer's demise done well, watch Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes.  If, however, you're in the mood for a Darren Aronofsky experience, you're in luck:  the freakshow is in town.



  1. To be fair, I have not yet read this post of yours b/c I really wanted to see this film--and fear your smarty pants brain might tell me not to bother--or, of course, tell me to go but give things away, as is necessary in your line of work.
    But I will be back--to comment meaningfully, soon.
    Happy New Year, D!

  2. Fair enough. I can say, without fear of spoiling any surprises, that you're in for an interesting time at the movies. I'm curious to hear what you think.

    And Happy New Year to you as well, B (and the same to S & G, which sounds like a department store, but of course is not).



Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Only Lovers Left Alive

"So this is your wilderness...Detroit."  So says Eve to Adam as they drive by night through the moribund Motor City in a white Jaguar.  Only Lovers Left Alive is not, as it happens, an update of the book of Genesis that Jim Jarmusch has overlaid onto the urban wasteland of Detroit.  The action Only Lovers Left Alive occurs by night, as Adam and Eve are vampires.  While they're not the primeval lovers of the Bible, the names do obviously carry significance.  Mr. Jarmusch's eleventh feature is an elegaic one, lamenting not only the tenuous existence of analog recording, lovely old guitars and other beautiful objects, but the looming loss of our very own paradise of a planet.

There would seem a certain inevitability in Detroit if you happen to be a vampire.  What better place to take up residence?  A city built for two million now now home 700,000. It is in significant ways -  figurative and quite literal - a city of night.  Former residential blocks now exist as open…

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three billboards with bold black letters in and an attention-grabbing orange field.  These the work of grieving mother Mildred Hayes, goading local Sheriff Bill Willoughby and his police force to show more initiative in solving the rape and murder of her daughter seven months earlier.

 Three films now for Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, each a kind of blazing billboard in its own right, full of provocation, contrivance, violence, heart and amusement.  Yes, all of that.  Audiences and critics have responded much more enthusiastically to the latest provocation of Mr. McDonagh than most of the residents of the fictional Ebbing, Missouri to those billboards of Mildred.  And yet, skepticism of the film seems even more justified than the disapproval of Ebbing for Mildred's roadside gesture; which is to say - what's the point? 

Accomplished both as a playwright and a filmmaker, Mr. McDonagh is, by his own acknowledgement, more comfortable in the role of the latter. …

The Paranoids

It's a recurring, if minor artistic theme:   the talented fuck-up languishes in obscurity while the glad-handing hack, inspired by if not blatantly ripping off the more talented one, enjoys success.   It was the conflict at the center of the documentary Dig, wth Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols taking on versions of those respective roles.  The theme is picked up by Argentine director Gabriel Medina in The Paranoids, but this moody film tends to meander in all but expected directions.   

The ability to enjoy The Paranoids rests, probably, in one's willingness to spend 90 minutes in the company of its main character, Luciano Gauna.   He occasionally ventures out  as a lavender-furred monster to  entertain children by day and struggles to complete a long-belabored screenplay by his near-perpetual night.   When it comes to the travails of a seemingly talented but underachieving man-child, I think I know several people who might say, "No tha…