WARNING: Review contains spoilers!
Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, languages and some drug use
It’s hard to find a bad review of this movie. This is one. Aside from the sex and the more sophisticated camera work, this movie could have been made 70 years ago. What happens to a main character who works himself or herself to the utmost in perfecting his/her skills and on the way achieves greater self-understanding? For men, especially in boxer movies, they triumph. Women must be punished, usually with death.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) and written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, the movie is a dark thriller that takes place alternatively inside the mind of ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) and in real life. It’s up to us to tell the difference – or not. Heinz wrote the story originally titled “The Understudy” and it took place in the world of New York theater. Aronofsky suggested it be changed to ballet. It’s more tortured that way, with all those bloody toes.
Nina is mentally disturbed at the outset. The jerky camera action and short takes keep us on our toes in assessing the reality of what we’ve seen and what Nina is seeing. Her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), more like the conventional evil stepmother, has kept her a child and raised her to focus on ballet only. Erica’s ballet career was thwarted when she became pregnant with Nina, another unoriginal plot line. Nina is certainly devoted to her craft, amid lots of tears, self-mutilation, bulimia, grueling work, and an obsessive desire to please everyone. She wants to be good in all ways – a good child, but not for a moment does she appear to enjoy anything about her life.
All of the women in the movie are crazed or obsessive or both. The only sane, albeit arrogant, person is the man around whom everyone and everything revolves, the head of the company, Thomas (Vincent Cassel). Thomas pushes Nina to develop the emotional maturity (via sexual pleasure) needed, in his opinion, to embody the character of both the Black Swan and the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
News Alert: Nobody told me that this movie includes an amazingly explicit lesbian sex scene! It’s really something and was about time such a scene appeared in a major motion picture. Who knew? I get why it’s part of this film, but Aronofsky really should have gifted it to The Kids are All Right, which needed it badly. But we have to take what we can get, don’t we?
Natalie Portman was terrific. It was a hard part. Portman did much of her own dancing in the movie, with her footwork made invisible by numerous dancing scenes shot from the midriff up. Coupled with the jerky camera these shots serve to disorient the viewer.
Portman dislocated a rib during the shooting, only to find that the budget didn’t allow for a medic. She suggested that they take away her trailer, instead of the medic. That’s what they did. This was probably a good thing as she also suffered a concussion during the filming.
The performances are great and include Winona Ryder as the aged-out star who wants to kill both Thomas and Nina, and very sexy Mila Kunis as Nina’s chief rival for the top part. Thus we have new cinematography as a backdrop to a variation on a theme to a very old story. Movies that come to mind are All About Eve, The Red Shoes, and Woman of the Year. In this trope, punishment is in order. In The Black Swan, this is how it goes: A disturbed woman who has lived her life as a child, tastes the apple of sexual knowledge and selfhood and as a result overcomes the limitations in her dancing expression, triumphing in a stellar performance. Oops, not so fast!
No one can tell me that this theme isn’t conventionally gendered in the extreme. How different it would have been if she’d shown growth in the midst of her ordeals, a part that would have required just as much and maybe more because of its originality. But we can only expect so much breadth of imagination about women characters in Hollywood.