Black Swan is modern day re-telling of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, Swan Lake. Rather than a tragically beautiful, tale of lost true love however, the film offers a frightening and at times hideous look at the obsessive, self-destructive side of classical dance.
For those who don’t know the fairy tale, a princess named Odette is cursed by the evil magician Von Rothbart to spend her days as a swan and regain her human form at night. The enchantment can only be undone by true love, and while she successfully wins the heart of the handsome Prince Siegfried, he is seduced away by Rothbart’s daughter, a black swan princess named Odile. Deprived of the true love that gave Odette her life back, she kills herself. When the ballet is performed, it is traditional for the same ballerina to dance both the roles of Odette and Odile. Thus, the dancer must be able to convey both a demure, pure-hearted maiden and an aggressive, lusty temptress.
The film translates the tale to the modern day, following a young ballerina named Nina, played by Portman, who is a dancer in New York City Ballet (NYCB). After spending years in the corpse de ballet, she is given the opportunity to dance the swan princess, though the director of NYCB feels that Nina is only capable of dancing the demure and innocent White Swan. She is a technical perfectionist, but her movements are repressed and inexpressive.
Vincent Cassell does an admirably creepy performance as Thomas, The creative director of NYCB who tries to draw out Nina’s inner-Black-Swan, serving as the film’s Von Rothbart. While there is no obvious equivalent to Siegfried, there is a another ballerina named Lily, played by Mila Kunis, who is by turns a friend, bitter rival and an object of desire to Nina. As Nina struggles to get in touch with her dark side, she begins to suffer from strange rashes and dreams, and things take a turn for the surreal.
As a former ballet dancer I loved the movie, mainly because it is does a brilliant job of showing off the ugly, and downright scary side of a beautiful art-form in a compelling fashion. All the psychoses of ballet are touched upon, if only superficially, from bulimia, to nervous itches and nail-biting, to the terror that is a “stage mom.” Barbara Hershey gives a strong performance as Nina’s possessive, domineering mother, who was once a ballerina herself and now lives vicariously through her daughter. The film also touches on the horrible fickleness and ephemerality of success in ballet. Winona Ryder plays Beth McIntyre, the former prima ballerina whose toe shoes Nina is stepping into.
For the most part, the film is paced quite well and keeps the tension high by jumping between Nina’s interactions with this damaged cast of characters. Black Swan is not flawless however, and there a few moments toward the end where the film goes off the rails and scenes that should be horrifying come across as silly instead. A few clichés abound as well. Sex and drugs are invoked to demonstrate Nina’s descent into black-swandom, though seeing how this is a retelling of a fairy tale, and a cautionary one at that, the tropes make sense.
Those seeking a romantic story with beautiful dancing would be served by saving money to see a live ballet performance. Much has been made of the training Portman had to endure to prepare herself for her role, and while it’s clear she knows her way around a barre, the scenes she dances herself are not technically impressive or terribly difficult, which is amusing because Nina is supposed to have flawless technique.
Speaking from personal experience and the people I’ve talked to, those who have a background in ballet seem to enjoy the film more than those who don’t, provided that they go in looking for a gripping story rather than impressive footwork. That having been said, the film is titillating, surreal and tense enough to entertain audiences with little interest in dance. I also have to stress that this movie is by no means a chick-flick. If anything, it is more akin to a supernatural horror film. To all guys who balk at the thought of watching a ballet movie, there is racy lesbian encounter between Portman and Kunis to consider.
All in all, Black Swan is a compelling film that explores the dualities that exist between dancers and the roles they suffer for, and the ramifications of pursuing perfection.