No. 207 | January 14, 2011
Our theme this week
Films about ballerinas
You might expect a movie about a professional wrestler to be a hard-hitting, brutal affair. You might expect a movie about the ballet to be lighter, more refined entertainment. But you might be surprised to find the two films have a lot in common. The movies: The Wrestler and Black Swan. Both feature performers driven by demons and other forces, who in the end make the ultimate sacrifice for their craft. The two films are violent; the first is especially physical, the other, more psychological. Both are directed by Darren Aronofsky, and both happen to be very good.
Art can be subtle, art can be obvious. Black Swan is more the latter. With a plot centered on a production of Swan Lake, the imagery of black and white is as plain as in an old-time western. The key, though, is not the virtues of one over the other, but the need for both.
Natalie Portman is Nina, a young dancer with a chance for the lead in her company’s new ballet. Her technique is immaculate, and she’d be perfect for the role of the white swan, but in the view of her director, Thomas (a very good Vincent Cassel), she lacks the passion to perform the black swan. The story follows her development from perfect, fragile girl to confident artist willing to let herself go. The challenges she faces include Thomas, an imposing figure whose support can be frank to the point of abusive, and at times highly inappropriate; Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer with the company, who befriends Nina and loosens her up, but is a cunning rival; and Erica, her overbearing mother (a fearsome Barbara Hershey), a onetime dancer that stardom eluded, and the source of Nina’s considerable fears.
Aronofsky provides a detailed examination of Nina’s psyche. At times the view is subtle, at times, fantastical, and even where the film goes over the top, I found the internal logic of the story and characters to be bulletproof. To its credit, the film doesn’t take the easy way out. It’s true to its own conceits.
This and the week’s other two films have a few similarities. Black Swan‘s technique-versus-passion theme can be found in The Turning Point. But Black Swan is closer to The Red Shoes. Both have story-within-a-story elements, with the identities of a ballerina and her role merging in captivating and tragic ways. The Red Shoes borrows from a fairy tale, Black Swan from the world of horror, and each tells a tale about a beautiful and talented ballerina that makes for a mesmerizing, unforgettable movie.
(More poster art for Black Swan here.)