Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
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One good thing about watching Darren Aronofsky’s (2010) much acclaimed “Black Swan” is that it increased my appreciation of Robert Altman’s “Company.” Altman thought that for a ballet movie it is better to pick dancer who can act than to use actors who can sort of dance. Natalie Portman won an Oscar as the increasingly deranged lead of a new production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” the corest of the core works for a classical ballerina.
With as much cutting as “Moulin Rouge” or “Chicago,” close-ups of Portman’s upper torso and real ballerina feet alternate. Portman plays the neuroses well and it’s not her fault that she is not a ballerina (and too old for the part to boot). It’s also not her fault that the plot is so simple-minded (however visually embellished).
The movie is about a driven perfectionist ballerina who finally gets her chance to star, as both the White Swan and Black Swan in a minimalist staging at Lincoln Center of “Swan Lake” and cracks up though having a sensational première. With Aronofsky at the helm, one can be sure there will be horror-movie effects for a crack up.
It’s hard enough for a non-dancer to be convincing as a prima ballerina. The challenge of portraying one who is too perfect, all technique and no risk-taking is insurmountable for a non-dancer. The director of the dance (Vince Cassel, about as sympathetic as he was as Mesrine) openly wonders if Nina (Portman) has the passion and dark side to the Black Swan. To me, there was no doubt about that (I saw “Closer”…); my doubts were about Portman’s ability to be the perfect White Swan.
There is (isn’t there always) a smothering, manipulative stage mother (Barbara Hershey) who “gave up” her chance at stardom to give birth to and raise Nina. Nina eventually points out that at 28 and still in the corps, Mom was past any shot at stardom. (She’s right, though Portman was born in 1981 and is being passed off as attaining her first starring role…)
There is a less-disciplined (more relaxed) new rival on the scene, Lily (Markovna "Mila" Kunis) fresh from San Francisco who undercuts Nina’s monastic life (some of this is Nina’s fantasy, and whether Lily is trying to take Nina’s role is not really clear). And the nasty starmaker, Thomas Leroy (Cassell), whose pedagogy could easily be viewed as sexual harassment. Nina has long obsessed on the aging diva whom Thomas is forcing to retire very much against her will (a way underused Winona Ryder). Though well acted, these are all types in a quite amply explored show-biz melodrama that centers on the tired “will she hold it together for (and through) opening night?” dramatic question. The answer is ultimately more “Carrie” than “Red Shoes.”
Aronofsky adds hallucinations right out of “Requiem for a Dream.” Lily gets some Ecstasy (I think) into Nina’s system, providing the druggie rationale for some of his usual excesses. She was already engaging in self-mutilation (along with the closely examined physical toll of her trade, which is very reminiscent of Aronofsky’s previous movie, “The Wrestler”). Nina is anorexic (a near requirement for ballerinas). She throws up repeatedly, but I would not diagnose her as being bulimic, too. Maybe paranoid schizophrenic, which is not a good malady for casting her in a maximally split starring stage role…
The DVD includes a stylish (if less than illuminating) three-part “making of feature totaling 49 minutes and going back to Aronofsky’s original conception of an over-the-hill wrester entranced by a ballerina (obviously, it became two movies).
For me, the best part of the movie was supplied by Tchaikovsky’s ultra-Romantic music. The dancing in the movie is very disappointing, but the music persists and ultimately prevails. I’d have liked a ballet movie, but should have known that with Aronofsky at the helm it would be a horror movie. Probably I should have anticipated what is the repressed woman’s hallucination would not be differentiated from the reality of her preparation for stardom in the vision of a lout (Thomas).
©2011, Stephen O. Murray
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