When Ballerinas Attack

I had a helluva time getting into this movie. It was sold out all weekend. So buy your tickets online, you say. I tried! Some of the showings had been sold out for WEEKS. I finally got a ticket for a late Sunday matinee. The theater was packed. Every hipster in Chicago turned out despite temperatures in the teens (and a bitter, soul-crushing wind blowing off the lake that made it feel like the icy finger of death was tickling me). When the movies are this good, weather is not a factor. And yes, Darren Aronofsky’s (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) Black Swan is really good.

The whole movie, like The Wrestler, hinges on the central performance, this time given by Natalie Portman as prima ballerina “Nina Sayers”. Some people have asked why costar Mila Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) hasn’t gotten more talk of possible nominations for her role as Nina’s understudy “Lily”, but after seeing Black Swan, I have to say, from first frame to last, this is Portman’s movie. She’s in nearly every single frame and everyone else almost feels like a prop, just there to facilitate her performance. Kunis is perfectly fine as sexy Lily, just as Vincent Cassel (Mesrine, the Ocean’s movies) is a solid supporting character as the artistic director of Nina’s ballet company, “Thomas Leroy”. Winona Ryder is appropriately crazy as aging ballerina “Beth” and is especially effective in one of the fright sequences. But for me, the standout supporting role, indeed, the only one worthy of a nomination (sorry Vincent!) is Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother, “Erica”.

Hershey bears a striking resemblance to Portman—you really believe them as mother and daughter. She gives Erica the right amount of doting mother mixed with a dash of “inappropriately close to her own daughter”. I found myself wondering if some of Nina’s issues stemmed from the fact that she is still so much her mother’s “sweet girl” that she can’t stand on her own as an adult. Indeed, Nina’s room is still decorated in tones of baby pink, her cell phone screen is fuchsia, she has stuffed animals everywhere, and each night Erica sets Nina’s music box to play as Nina goes to sleep. And Nina is supposed to be about 25-27.

Still, it’s clear that Nina does need a caretaker. References to past incidents of self-harm are made, and we see Erica caring for Nina as the pressure of performing the legendary Swan Lake role of Odette, the White Swan, and her evil twin Odile, the Black Swan, mounts. This is where Portman’s performance converges with the script by Mark Heyman (who also wrote The Wrestler), Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin to confound the audience. We are presented early on with a reasonable, rational explanation for the mysterious rash on Nina’s back—conveniently located where wings could sprout—which is that Nina has a history of destructive scratching. And we see Nina vomiting blood after auditions—even after winning major roles. Clearly, Nina doesn’t handle stress well.

Yet Portman and the screenwriters craft such a balanced story of suspicion both real and imagined that despite this logical explanation for what is happening to Nina, we still kind of believe someone might really be out to get her. Lily, for instance, sweeps into the company from San Francisco and within the short weeks leading up to the opening night of Swan Lake she becomes Leroy’s favorite and seduces him. Ballet companies are very competitive—there are only so many featured soloists and only one prima ballerina and careers are short—so it’s realistic to suppose that Lily really is trying to undermine Nina. Yet so much of what Nina thinks is happening turns out to be a delusion.

Feeding into this real/imagined paradox is the very real abuse ballerinas suffer for their art. Credit to Portman and the Foley artists for giving us the crunches, the splinters, the sucked-in breaths, the knocks and cracks of joints and a body abused past endurance. Nina really is under a huge amount of physical duress to dance the role of the Swan Queen, and added to it is her psychological suffering. It’s hard to tell, at times, which injuries and pains are real and imagined.

As for that well-documented weight loss—I think it was necessary. We can talk about the real-life repercussions of Portman and Kunis losing so much weight for a role, but in the end, they look like real ballerinas. Both actresses—and their body doubles—and Aronofsky, editor Andrew Weisblum (another The Wrestler alum), and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (the Iron Man franchise and Requiem for a Dream) deserve a medal for pulling off the dance sequences so seamlessly. You always believe Portman and Kunis are really dancing—it never looks faked. And Portman, especially, is so gamine, so elfin, as Nina with her slight frame and huge eyes in a wan face—it all feeds the effect of a body unable to bear the rigors of the art it is trained for.

The technical proficiency of Black Swan is eye-popping. Aronofsky uses visual effects not for “whizz bang” factor but to enhance and deepen his story. The dance sequence in which Nina as the Black Swan sprouts wings is one of the loveliest and freakiest scenes of the year. And Clint Mansell (The Wrestler, Moon), a longtime collaborator of Aronofsky’s, turns in his best score since Requiem for a Dream. Someone please give Mansell an Oscar. Black Swan should be a contender in the artistic categories for sure, and though they may be demure when compared to an action movie, I think the visual effects are also deserving of some recognition.

You may have noticed how many times I’ve mentioned The Wrestler in this post. If I have any problem with Black Swan it’s that it is so strongly reminiscent of The Wrestler. The ending particularly feels like a redux. If you’ve not seen The Wrestler, 1) what’s wrong with you and 2) this won’t bug you at all. But if you have seen it, you can’t escape the comparisons. Aronofsky employs the same handicam-style photography (which actually works better here, as it feeds Nina’s sense of paranoia, since the audience is always following her around), and the framing is most often set in tight close ups. It’s fine to consider Black Swan as a companion piece to The Wrestler (you pretty much have to), but I wish Black Swan—so beautiful, so scary—felt a little more fresh.

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