Black Swan | reviews, news & interviews
OTT, Grand Guignol, horrid, and hilariously enjoyable - it's ballet, up to a point
They’re calling Black Swan BS on some of the dance websites, and while they’re right about the dancing, this is a whale of an enjoyable outing to the flicks: lush, Gothic, psycho and flavoursomely OTT. I don’t much care that Natalie Portman can’t dance for toffee - Tobey Maguire probably didn’t satisfy jockeys with his style in Seabiscuit, or Hilary Swank the boxing clubs in Million Dollar Baby. It’s down to the character study, and who wants well-balanced yoghurt-eaters at a ballet movie anyway? We want girly fantasy, motherly obsession, blood in the shoes, Carrie at the ballet, and Darren Aronofsky gives it to us in style.
The mesmerising Portman was reasonably awarded the Best Actress Golden Globe this week for the performance of a girl who only sees herself in mirrors. Unconvincing ballet dancer that she is, she radiates the deepest, most painful unhappiness, a taut beauty out of control of her life, striving in a world that she only half-knows she wants. She appears to harm herself, to slaughter her enemies, to mar and stain the pure ballet dream with blood, glass, violence; but these seem the wayward fancies of a masochistically inclined girl leading a strictly disciplined life in polar contrast to the abandoned effect of its intended result (like Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher).
Though her hallucinations are filled with Swan Lake, actually Nina Sayers is not the Swan Queen but the Sleeping Beauty, locking herself in a childish bedroom full of pink soft toys, wildly dreaming (or perhaps we are) of caressing feathers, vulva-like tutu skirts, arching necks, parted lips, phallic pink pointe shoes, swan queens tonguing each other, sex, sex, sex.
She is beset by those twin standbys, the mother from hell and the lusty boss. Mother is the corps de ballet dancer who has force-fed ballet into her daughter, and simultaneously longs for her to be a leading ballerina yet can’t help resenting her. Barbara Hershey is just as madly watchable as Portman, her black eyes narrowing while her long snake’s lips smile, pushing cake at Nina one moment, sobbing with pride the next. When she coos at her daughter, "It's OK - I'm here," it's as hilariously scary as Jack Nicholson's "Here's Johnny!"
Meanwhile the sexually charged balletmaster can't wait to get into his new protegée's pants, and is played with voracious relish and delicious charm by Frenchman Vincent Cassel (pictured right) in a nifty gear-change after his gangsters in Mesrine and La Haine.
And yet, and yet, these aren’t entirely cartoon characters. Cassel isn’t cut and dried as evil Rothbart in Swan Lake - it’s the mother who’s the sorceress whose spell the girl has to break, and Hershey gives this mother a realistic, even touching psychology. So when Cassel orders Nina to masturbate and find herself, he thinks he's doing her a favour.
Brazen, maybe, but there’s also a nugget of truth in this giddily Expressionist view into ballet - all these love stories, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, need their undercurrent of turbulent sexual urges to be understood and sublimated in performance. And the ballet world uses sex in both a more profound and a more throwaway fashion than civilian métiers.
Derek Deane, when artistic director at English National Ballet, ordered his leading dancers to make love with someone before performing Romeo and Juliet - he wasn’t wrong, in that a dancer with an unawakened imagination can’t begin to give these emotional voyages the momentum they demand. The line between onstage and offstage awareness is fine. Gelsey Kirkland, the great American ballerina, wrote explicitly about her almost parasitic affair with her director and onstage partner Mikhail Baryshnikov. Joan Brady's Prologue explained the frightening power a ballet girl can feel her balletmaster and mother have over her.
Still, Black Swan isn’t about ballet, much - if it were, it would have had to be studying a proper ballet company, and as we know ballet dancers are hokey cinema actors with spindly voices, just as actresses are hokey dancers with soft legs (a footless Portman pictured above left in an official publicity still). A good ballet film would also not confuse feeling the magic with doing the magic, which is the actual job description.
Instead, this is a high-style, old-fashioned theatre-world shocker about a frigid mummy’s girl with personal-freedom issues. She starves and slashes herself not because ballet girls do but because this one is very screwed-up and living is terrifying. Despite the fleeting Red Shoes echoes, it's more reminiscent of Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus, highlighting the eternal closed-doors war of emotion and discipline in a secret world militantly dedicated to conveying fantasy. When dance films want to be openly feel-good and social-worky - Billy Elliot or StreetDance 3D - inaccuracy matters, but BS isn’t purveying a message about the practice of classical ballet so much as Aronofsky giving ballet a big wet lick of desire for its glorious images and outsized mysteries.
So… to BS or not to BS. Oh, go on, it’s one of those movies you can’t miss. But take a supersized tub of popcorn. If you aren’t throwing it at the screen, it’ll be exploding on your lap at some of the things you see.
- Feature on theartsdesk about reclaiming the original version of Swan Lake
NATALIE PORTMAN ON THEARTSDESK
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Watch the official trailer for Black Swan
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