Last night, thanks to the mysterious appearance of the HBO channels on our cable lineup, I finally watched Black Swan. I approached the movie with extreme trepidation: because I get creeped out really easily and I don’t like to be startled, several people had told me I shouldn’t see it at all. But I had Daniel next to me making fake-scary faces, waving his fingers, and going “WOOOO, it’s just a MOOOOOOVIE,” so I went for it.
At the end of the movie I posted on Facebook: “Saw Black Swan finally. Kind of want to slap Darren Aronofsky upside the head.”
Here’s the thing: I am entirely willing to believe that the world of ballet has the potential to attract and/or create psychologically damaged people. (It helps that I was obsessed with Gelsey Kirkland’s autobio Dancing on my Grave when I was in high school.) Stage mothers living out their frustrated dance dreams through their daughters are real. Emotionally and sexually manipulative company directors are real (depending on the view one takes of George Balanchine, who by some accounts was the model for the character of Thomas in Black Swan). The consuming desire for perfection is real. The anxiety about career longevity and advancement is real. The bloody toes are real. Even the characterization of Nina, simultaneously sheltered and damaged, coddled and neglected, rang somewhat true for me: a promising dancer who commits to a company at age 18 is making a decision she probably isn’t developmentally prepared to make and ends up coming of age in a hothouse atmosphere where her usefulness to society is very narrowly defined (see also Sergei what’s-his-name, 21, who just left the Royal Ballet to run a tattoo studio or something).
So my beef with Black Swan is not with its portrayal of the world of professional dance. My beef with Black Swan is with its cinematic style. Doesn’t Aronofsky trust his audience? The beginning of the movie was so in medias res that I actually thought we had missed the first 15 minutes or something. We have no indication of how Nina became the psychological train wreck that she is (potentially a more interesting story, IMO). The movie starts with the melodrama-o-meter dialed up to 11 and then keeps cranking on it all the way to the end. Stop it with the claustrophobic interiors, the grey-on-grey-on-grey color scheme, the relentless distastefulness of the characters. Couldn’t I just have spent the whole movie with Mila Kunis’s character? She seemed like a cool girl.
I wasn’t bothered by the creepiness/grossness per se, or the sexuality–I am on record as loving the movie The Libertine, one of the most explicit and nastiest movies I’ve ever seen. But, again, memo to director: WE GET IT. Girlfriend needs therapy. And her own apartment and a normal boyfriend and some friends and maybe a protein shake. Nor do I mind Natalie Portman having used dance doubles and then kept quiet about it. High-level ballet training is a 15- or 20-year pursuit requiring that one start with a fairly specific body type. Hardcore dance nerds would notice that she was using a double (“There’s no way that’s really her”) and we’d have noticed if she hadn’t (“That was terrible; she should have had a double”). The rest of the world probably wouldn’t care, and the awards that she won were for acting, not for developpés. Keeping the use of doubles a secret till after awards season was a dumb decision but probably an administrative one.
While I’ve got you here, though, I have to say that I don’t understand giving those awards for what I felt was largely a one-note performance. She spent 80% of the movie crying or trying not to cry. I don’t believe, come to think of it, that such fragility would have survived in the professional dance world as long as her character supposedly did. Even if you take into account that she hadn’t had a piece of cake in at least 15 years.
The dance world is an insider’s world. I think that’s the reason that ballet movies are always flawed. Educating an audience and then creating compelling characters and telling an engaging story is a lot to do successfully in two hours. I credit Black Swan for its ambition but fault it for being headache-inducingly melodramatic (true fact: I had a headache at the end of the film) and, in the end, unoriginal. I would venture to suggest that the truisms of ballet that I enumerated above are widely enough known to stand as clichés. And I would happily watch a movie of much greater subtlety and originality in which an insurgent dancer equipped with good mental health, supportive friends, and actual body fat (just a little) successfully pushed aside the punishing atmosphere and mind games of her company, opening the way to its re-creation as a creative juggernaut of positive energy.
But then, I am a Pollyanna.