Ballet is generally known to those stupid in the ways of dance (see: your faithful reviewer) as something quite lovely and delicate. Black Swan turns ballet into something much more ominous and terrifying than I ever expected, a feat achieved by both Natalie Portman’s dancing (and her long-shot stunt double) and the film itself: the sound design and camera work when she is dancing as Swan Lake’s black swan is amazing, and everything people say dance can be. However, you’ll still never convince me to go to the ballet, classical music still makes me snore, and I found Black Swan a bit boring in parts. So, I have no culture. At least I have movies like Machete to keep me warm at night.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer with a narrow view of the world: unless she is forced outside by events out of her control, she only spends time with the prestigious dance company she works for, headed by the demanding and frankly creepy Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel); and in her little-girl room with her mother (Barbara Hershey), who gave up her ballet career to give birth to Nina and who now lives vicariously through her daughter. With the involuntary retirement of principal ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder), Nina is given the opportunity to dance the lead in the little-known production Swan Lake by some dude called Tchaikovsky. Threatening her newfound fortune is newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis), whose charm and talent unbalance Nina’s already delicate sense of self-worth. Much like the critically acclaimed and read, watch, listen-criticised Inception, Black Swan plays with what is real and what isn’t, and at the end you may still be unsure.
The acting is wonderful; Portman is heartbreaking as the unstable Nina, her anguish at the world clear on her face and her almost constantly distress-shaped eyebrows. Hershey is alarming as her mother, someone so dedicated to her daughter’s career she clings to her in a wholly unhealthy manner. Mila Kunis is lovely and affable as Lily, the uptight Nina’s antithesis, a woman game enough—and racy enough—to be the seductive black swan that Nina struggles to play properly, so dedicated is she to her confined and virginal white swan lifestyle. (You can tell Lily is the naughty to Nina’s nice because Lily has tattoos and wears black eyeliner, and Nina is surrounded by an excess of pink. And good girls don’t get tattoos, as movies have taught me and I, along with tens of millions of other good people, have studiously ignored.)
Shot in an interesting, intimate style, the smooth lines of the dancers compete with the disjointed, handheld camera movements. Many of Nina’s scenes as she moves from one place to another are shot from behind her head, like you are in some kind of Black Swan video game with the over-the-shoulder view switched on. (If it was a game, I would totally play it and kick Leroy square in the nuts with a flying ballet leap. It would be awesome.) Scenes are often shot through mirrors, playing with perspective and with Nina’s image of herself. It is a beautifully constructed movie, scored perfectly and delicately, and I can’t find any fault with the editing between Natalie Portman as Nina and her double, who only danced in the long shots. (Portman has danced in the past and has kept her dancer’s physique, as can be seen in all its bruised and ribbed glory in the short film before The Darjeeling Limited.)
Ostensibly a movie about the psychological pressures placed on those at the top of their game—and where it shares minor similarities with director Darren Aronofsky’s recentish The Wrestler—it could be a movie made about any competitive activity. Stick Portman in a tennis outfit instead, or maybe as a professional runner, and the movie could follow a similar track. Ballet’s obsession with beauty plays a not insignificant part, though it’s tricky to tell in movies because everyone in them is beautiful anyway and you almost forget how lovely people look when everyone who surrounds them is also beautiful. (Maybe this is an insight into the movie industry as well? Probably.) Visions of Nina throwing up, or smiling as the costume designer tells her “you’ve lost weight!” play into the beauty aspect, as does the predictably sleazy Leroy, happy to seduce and reduce Nina to her sexuality and creating some truly uncomfortable scenes. In that, Cassel is probably a fabulous actor, because I hated him.
The general dislike I had for everyone was part of why, despite all this, I didn’t enjoy the movie as much as I had hoped. Nina is absolutely a sympathetic character, made destructive by her environment: driven by her desperate mother to perfection and by her teacher into becoming someone she is not for the sake of a part. But she is so uptight and ill-humoured that I didn’t actually like her. By the end of the film I didn’t like a single person in it, and ballet came across as an exhausting, depressing, misogynistic vocation that can ruin your body and your brain just so some rich people can pay to see people give themselves lifelong physical ailments by jumping about on their toes. So yes, that wasn’t particularly unexpected, then.
As I’ve said in this blog before, unlikeable characters don’t necessarily make or break a film*, but my indifference towards her did not help when teamed with the other issues I had. Also like Inception, I sometimes found it boring, checking the time or shifting in my seat and looking pointedly around hoping to catch the eye of someone else bored. (I didn’t. And some people applauded at the end of the film. So you may love this.) I couldn’t tell you which scenes bored me; I just know that I was waiting for something and it was taking too long. I also found myself unsurprised by the events that unfolded. It wasn’t actually predictable in that I could tell which scenes were coming, but with every dramatic moment I never really felt shocked by what happened, bar one scene in Beth’s hospital room that almost produced a squeal. Aronofsky did create amazing tension, building up every character to the point where they could break, or break Nina, but some scenes that the sound design indicated were supposed to make me start in shock just had no effect at all, like a B-grade horror movie that has monsters jumping out of closets every time you need to get your coat.
Well, this is getting long, and there’s more I’d love to whine about, but I should shut up and summarise: Below Expectations. I love Aronofsky, I think Natalie Portman is great if you pretend she never smooched Anakin Skywalker, and I wanted to like a movie about ballet so I could seem like totally smart and stuff. But I didn’t like it, not really. It didn’t amaze or astound, and while Aronofsky was honest about the lack of glamour in ballet—as the bleak grey bricks in the studio can attest—I just don’t like it. The fact that Ms Portman is now engaged and pregnant to co-star and choreographer Benjamin Millepied made me feel a little better though—I love a good romance (even in a movie that’s not about one), and I love that his name sounds like millipede. Because I’m not cultured. But I’m okay with that.
*Neither does my dislike of the sport involved; I also hate wrestling, but I thought The Wrestler was a great movie.