The only story that movies ever seem to want to tell about ballet is of women destroying themselves for their art: The Red Shoes, in other words. Still, the directors usually have a genuine affection for ballet. Not Darren Aronofsky. The mastermind behind The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream may offer all the usual accessories to the tale – vengeful ageing divas intent on thwarting the bright young thing headed to her doom, tyrannical directors, ambitious mothers, vicious colleagues, absurdly high stakes – but he forgets to like ballet.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a soloist in a New York company whose stage door, at least, resembles that of New York City Ballet. The director (Vincent Cassel) offers her the lead in Swan Lake on one condition: that she loosen up. How else can she hope to embody the good Swan Queen’s wicked double, the lascivious Black Swan?
“Lose yourself,” the bully exhorts. “Live a little.” He prescribes a regimen of sex – with himself, if she’d like – and masturbation. She takes on the second assignment the way she does everything – with deadly seriousness – in her bedroom, presided over by her soft toys. She does little without supervision, usually supplied by her overbearing, undermining mother (Barbara Hershey).
Nina never can lose herself – there are too many contradictory demands on her. But she does gain a demonic double. Ramming her soft toys down the garbage chute, this maniac arrives at the theatre in an orgasmic fury and wins a standing ovation and the director’s ultimate admiration and gratitude for her Black Swan.
It doesn’t ever seem worth it.
The blame lies partly with the constrained camerawork, which never reveals what all the struggle is for. To keep from betraying Portman’s modest training – she devoted a year to a discipline that demands a decade at minimum – the camera stays above the waist. Body double Sarah Lane of American Ballet Theatre provides the precise footwork. We shuttle north to south and back again, with none of the midrange shots of the whole body and expressive face that light up classic dance movies: Gene Kelly singing in the rain, Astaire and Rogers rollerskating in the Park, Moira Shearer pas-de-deuxing with stray newspapers on the vast stage of The Red Shoes.
Worse, though, is the relentless misery to which Aronofsky subjects his heroine. Portman’s face quivers and her eyes brim with tears in almost every scene – even before the balletmaster raises the stakes. When she speaks, her voice barely emerges from her throat, it is so choked with anxiety. Her spine is stiff with fear. In light of her suffering, the thrill leaks out of this thriller. Who cares whether Nina has really sprouted wings or is only going mad? You want the torture to stop.
If Aronofsky had paid some attention to the ballet Nina is destroying herself over, he might have made a less odious film. Sure, there is a good maiden and a sly vixen in Swan Lake, but, like the ballet’s dopey prince, Aronofsky gets them mixed up. The virtuous woman has a self to lose; the schemer merely fakes it.
Odile the Black Swan is easy to understand. She does what her sorcerer daddy bids. She doesn’t transform herself, she merely impersonates – queen, swan, whatever is necessary – with a blatancy of timing and technique that looks spectacular. It is spectacular: what you see is what you get. “Losing yourself” has nothing to do with it.
Odette – part swan, whole queen, once simply a woman – is complex: wild but also majestic, animal yet gentle. Feeling and animal sense direct her nuanced moves and help her decide whom to trust (a skill I wish Nina had). Eventually she falls slowly backwards into the prince’s arms in a luxurious rapture that makes Nina’s “liberation” – getting banged in a club bathroom by a couple of drunken lads – seem especially pathetic. (Bad girl Lily, played with pleasing insouciance by Mila Kunis, orchestrates this drugged-up defloration.)
Aronofsky and his movie double, the ballet director, get things backwards. If Nina can do the white swan she can do anything, because the Swan Queen has an inner life. Next to that, the lessons of random sex and other experiences pale.
In interviews, Aronofsky has professed surprise that the ballet world did not fling open its doors when he announced his ballet thriller. “It’s very insular,” he has said. “Dancers never want to do anything that might in any way interrupt their schedule.” Maybe they already have something to dedicate their time to – and, no, I don’t mean virginity. ()
On limited release in North America beginning Friday, rated R; UK release on February 11.