The first question about Black Swan that should be dispensed with is whether or not it is a ballet movie. There has been much discussion about how accurately the film portrays the cloistered world of professional ballet, and about how well Natalie Portman performs as a ballerina. It would seem that those who know most about ballet found the film the most difficult to enjoy, but that doesn’t spoil the pleasure for the rest of us.
The UK’s Guardian newspaper canvassed the opinions of a number of principal dancers and artistic directors of ballet companies after giving them a special screening of the film, and virtually every one was horrified at the negative cliches of ballet that the film purveyed. “This is a very lazy movie, featuring every ballet cliche going,” Tamara Rojo, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, is quoted as saying. Cassa Pancho, artistic director of Ballet Black, recommended that people should not “worry about the ballet — go for the great lesbian action and the horror.”
In Black Swan, ballet is treated as something akin to an extreme sport, exacting a tremendous physical and psychological toll. It is this toll, the price of perfection, that director Darren Aronofsky is primarily interested in. The scenes in which ballet is performed are primarily a setting for all kinds of psycho-sexual tricks. Melodramas are often filled with cliches, and their success or failure depends on how the director manipulates them. In Black Swan, Aronofsky does a splendid job of using the things we all think we know about ballet and then taking them to an extreme, creating a world of psychological horror into which the audience is happy to be drawn. Reality can be cheerfully dispensed with. It’s no wonder hackles have been raised in the ballet community.
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman (Nina Sayers), Mila Kunis (Lily), Vincent Cassel (Thomas Leroy), Barbara Hershey (Erica Sayers), Winona Ryder (Beth Macintyre)
Running Time: 108 minutes
Taiwan release: Today
While the picture drawn of the inner workings of a ballet company might not chime with reality, what is beyond doubt is that Portman does a dazzling job of portraying the character of Nina Sayers, a young ballerina who is given the role of her life and breaks under the stress of creating perfection.
Nina is a prissy girl smothered by an almost psychopathic mom (a frighteningly believable Barbara Hershey) and has been brought up, almost from birth, to become a prima ballerina. She is committed to perfection, and when she wins the role of the Swan Queen in what the artistic director Thomas Leroy describes as a “visceral” production of Swan Lake, she fights her own personality to give full expression to both the white swan and her evil twin sister, the black swan of the title.
Crossing over to the dark side of her tortured soul, Nina’s tendency toward self-harm begins to get out of control, and her grasp on reality slips. This destructive process is shepherded along by Leroy, who hopes to crack Nina’s icy fragility and bring out a hotter passion for artistic, and perhaps also personal, reasons.
Providing contrast to Nina’s inner struggle is Beth, the ballet company’s former principal dancer whose career is coming to a premature close. The casting of Winona Ryder, a talented actress who has done so much to destroy her own career, was a stroke of genius, akin to what Aronofsky achieved when he brought Mickey Rourke out of the Hollywood deep freeze for The Wrestler (2008). Another character who unwittingly adds to Nina’s psychological instability is Lily (Mila Kunis), a free-spirited dancer who is used by Leroy to show Nina the passionate being she could release from within if she only had the courage.