Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Dark Side of the Barre

This is an expanded edition of the review of Black Swan I wrote for The Technique, though the original never got published on account of school being cancelled for the first week due to 8 inches of snow and ice. I'm actually glad I get to post it here, because I have more to say about this movie than most. Actually, it did get published on the Technique's website, which you should totally visit so I don't get in trouble for posting this extended edition here. Have mercy editorial powers that be!

A simple enough poster, but it does a good job of balancing between pretty and scary.

Black Swan is modern day re-telling of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, Swan Lake.  Rather than a tragically beautiful, tale of lost true love however, the film offers a frightening and at times hideous look at the obsessive, self-destructive side of ballet.

For those who don’t know the fairy tale, a princess named Odette is cursed by the evil magician Von Rothbart to spend her days as a swan and regain her human form at night. The enchantment can only be undone by true love, and while she successfully wins the heart of the handsome Prince Siegfried, he is seduced away by Rothbart’s daughter, a black swan princess named Odile. Deprived of the true love that gave Odette her life back, she kills herself.  When the ballet is performed, it is traditional for the same ballerina to dance both the roles of Odette and Odile. Thus, the dancer must be able to convey both a demure, pure-hearted maiden and an aggressive, lusty temptress.

The film translates the tail to the modern day, following a young ballerina named Nina, played by Portman, who is a dancer in New York City Ballet (NYCB). After spending years in the corpse de ballet, she is given the opportunity to dance the swan princess, though the director of NYCB feels that Nina is only capable of dancing the vulnerable and innocent White Swan. She is a technical perfectionist, but her movements are repressed and inexpressive. Vincent Cassell does an admirably creepy performance as Thomas, the creative director of NYCB who tries to draw out Nina’s inner-Black-Swan and serves as the film’s Von Rothbart. While there is no obvious equivalent to Siegfried, there is a another ballerina named Lily, played by Mila Kunis, who is both a bitter rival and an object of desire to Nina. As Nina struggles to get in touch with her dark side, she begins to suffer from strange rashes and dreams, and things take a turn for the surreal. 

As a former ballet dancer I loved the movie, mainly because it is does a brilliant job of showing off the ugly, and downright scary side of an otherwise beautiful art-form in a compelling fashion. All the major psychoses of classical dance are touched upon, if only superficially, from bulimia, to nervous itches and nail-biting, to the terror that is a “stage mom.” Barbara Hershey gives a strong performance as Nina’s possessive, domineering mother, who was once a ballerina herself and now lives vicariously through her daughter. This is a real, and all-too-common phenomena in the world of dance that lay audiences may not appreciate. Indeed, deprived of the context of experience, Nina's exaggerated mommy issues can seem ham-handed and excessive.

Nina's turbulent relationship with Lily may seem equally absurd, though it is again very accurate when taken as a broad symbol of relationships in the ballet world.  Lily offers care and concern for Nina in a way that deliberately damages her. She presents herself as a friend who Nina can confide in, when really she is only trying to draw out and exacerbate the stresses Nina is trying to fight. She tells the director that she is worried about Nina's health under the pretense of concern, only to erode the director's faith in Nina's ability to handle the role. Nina is intimidated by her strong personality and enraged by her machinations, but as evidenced by her attraction to the director, she is also drawn to people that try to control her, and as a result, Lily becomes an object of lust as well as scorn.

The film touches on the horrible fickleness and ephemerality of success in ballet by means of Beth McIntyre, played by Winona Ryder. Beth is the former prima ballerina whose pointe shoes Nina is stepping into. Nina idolizes Beth to the point of obsession manifested through kleptomania. Admittedly, this is the most tenuously developed thread of the film, but the horrible accident that Beth suffers parallels the catastrophic career ending injuries that are a constant danger in ballet. The fact that Beth's career ends before her accident, which may or may not have been self-inflicted, drives home the message of the movie: ballerinas live and die by their opportunities to dance.

For the most part, the film is paced quite well and keeps the tension high by jumping between Nina’s interactions with this damaged cast of characters. Black Swan is not flawless however, and there are a few moments toward the end where the film goes off the rails and scenes that should be horrifying come across as silly instead, like Nina's final confrontation with Beth. A few clich├ęs abound as well. Sex and drugs are invoked as obvious symbols of Nina’s descent into black-swandom. In fact, things don't really go to hell until Nina has an orgasm. Yes, it's an ancient, anachronistic trope, but seeing how this is the retelling of a cautionary fairy tale about innocence and sexuality, it is not merely appropriate but essential for the story.

Those seeking a romantic story with beautiful dancing would be better served by saving money to see a live ballet performance. Much has been made of the training Portman had to endure to prepare herself for her role, and while it’s clear she knows her way around a barre, the scenes she dances herself are not technically impressive or terribly difficult, which is amusing because Nina is supposed to have flawless technique.

Speaking from personal experience and the other dancers I have talked to, those who have a background in ballet seem to enjoy the film more than those who don’t; provided that they go in looking for a gripping story rather than impressive footwork. That having been said, the film is titillating, surreal and tense enough to entertain audiences with little interest in dance. I also have to stress that this movie is by no means a chick-flick. If anything, it is more akin to a supernatural horror film. To all guys who balk at the thought of watching a ballet movie, there is racy lesbian encounter between Portman and Kunis to consider.

All in all, Black Swan is a compelling film that explores the dualities that exist between dancers and the roles they suffer for, and the ramifications of pursuing perfection.

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