If you see just one disturbing take on a Tchaikovsky ballet this winter make it Black Swan, a dark and strange drama from Darren Aronofsky.
And funny! You wouldn’t think a psychosexual thriller (which is how I keep hearing the film billed) about ballet starring Natalie Portman would be a laugh riot, but it is strangely, frequently, quite hilarious. Intentionally, even. There is a great throwaway moment toward the end of the film when Nina (Portman), the dancer who is having a complete psychological breakdown as she attempts to give a perfect performance as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, is backstage during the opening night’s performance. She has started to internalize the story of the white and black swans and she has started to see the ballet’s villain Rothbart (Sergio Torrado) as the personification of evil and betrayal and the forces that she believes are plotting her downfall. She passes him, dressed in his full evil crow regalia, while in a state of extreme agitation and delirium. “Hey,” he says casually as you do to coworkers, when she passes him.
Nina is full-blown crazy by the end of the movie but she is unhinged throughout. She is the rising star at her company — Beth (Winona Ryder), the current star, is being forcibly retired. Lechy company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) picks Nina to get the lead role in an upcoming Swan Lake production but tells her he only sees the innocent white swan in her, not the passionate, seducing black swan. In their practices, he pushes her to find her inner fire, to let go. Meanwhile, Nina’s overbearing stage-mom mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a former ballerina, is constantly picking at her. Nina bars the door to get privacy while in the bathroom and is startled one morning to find her mother asleep in a chair in her (Nina’s) bedroom, giving her and us the sense that her mother is trying to push her way into even her daughter’s dreams. Into this emotional viper’s nest comes Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer in the company. She doesn’t have Nina’s skill but Thomas holds Lily up as an example of the uninhibitedness that Nina lacks. Nina comes to believe that Lily is trying to sabotage her and take the lead role for herself. But at the same time, Nina seems drawn to Lily — who personifies the dark side of Nina.
Oh, and a rash on Nina’s back might be caused by her Kafka-like transformation into a swan.
Everything I’d heard about this movie and everything I saw in the trailers did not prepare me for this strange, fantasy-tinted All About Eve-ish look at the backstage drama of a ballet. As I mentioned, it’s funny — I found myself laughing more than expected particularly at moments that poke fun at the “is this really happening/is it a dream” moments. The movie gives us the story from Nina’s point of view but it presents it in such a way that we know not to take her at face value. Is Nina nuts? Is she really turning into a swan? Is she both nuts and being gaslighted by an ambitious rival? The movie holds back just enough that you’re never quite sure what’s happening — though it offers enough hints that you can make a good guess — even in its final moments. It is, like a ballet, a representation of actions as opposed to a direct display of actions and feelings. I found myself enjoying just going along with this nutty little ride.
Because not only is there the story of Nina and her brightening star/growing insanity, there is also a lot of fun stuff about ballet — its beauty and its ugliness. We see the actors practice and eventually perform and get a sense of some of the artistry involved. We also get the toe-cracking, nail-breaking, chiropractic moments of ballet. The movie does something unusual with its sound — even during the most symphonic moments, the music never completely covers the sound of the hard-toed pointe ballet shoes tapping across the stage. The result is that the ballet doesn’t seem magical, the ballerinas don’t float — instead they seem like athletes doing incredibly difficult physical work. It was a small but smart story-telling choice. Black Swan is full of such small but elegant touches that all add up to a fascinating, mesmerizing movie.
Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use. Directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, Black Swan is an hour and 43 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Fox Searchlight.