I saw it over the weekend. Overall, I thought it was hilarious. Totally campy and just plain funny. Way too silly to be scary though. And I think Aronofksy was going for both. So, to me, it failed to that extent. But it may have just been me. Maybe I just have a dark sense of humor, because I went with two friends – one a ballet fan of the Gelsey Kirkland era, the other not. They both loved it and were on the edge of their seats throughout, although they also laughed quite a bit (particularly Gelsey Kirkland friend). Gelsey Kirkland friend said it reminded him of Dancing on My Grave. I must read that! I don’t know why I haven’t yet…
Anyway, so if you don’t know the story, it’s about this young ballerina who dances with a New York City ballet company housed in the Koch Theater. The artistic director (played by Vincent Cassel) is basically Peter Martins but with brown hair and a French accent. Peter Martins guy tells the company that they are doing a new production of Swan Lake and to attract new audiences, they are going to cast a brand new ballerina, a new face. The old prima, Winona Ryder, is approaching menopause anyway. Never mind that she looks the same age she did in Reality Bites, at least to me. Apparently this company doesn’t have a system of principals and corps members because no one has any idea who the new face is going to be.
Peter Martins guy soon reveals that he favors Nina (Portman), but thinks she can only do the White Swan. He thinks she’ll have trouble with the Black Swan (he never uses the names Odette and Odile, which I know annoyed some ballet fans on Twitter, but I think it would have alienated non-ballet audiences had he used those names). He tries to seduce her (literally) in the name of getting her into the character of the Black Swan, which of course in the film is characterized as a sinister, conniving slut. But maybe he goes too far and unleashes the inner beast in Nina. She suddenly seems hell-bent on destroying herself (and she’s had problems in the past with self-mutilation and, it’s hinted at, anorexia). Or, maybe it’s that a new dancer from San Francisco (Mila Kunis) is trying to destroy her in order to take her place as the lead. My biggest problem with the movie is that it’s billed as a thriller but we never really find out the answer to that question. At the end, you’re still left wondering WFT was that about??? I mean, you’re left wondering that with many David Lynch films too, but with those, if you think long and hard enough, you can piece it all together. This, I don’t think so. I think it was just meant to be scary, sexy, creepy, gory camp.
For serious ballet fans, you have to suspend disbelief. Natalie Portman I thought did an excellent acting job, and her dancing is very very good for someone with very little training. I know Sarah Lane was supposedly her double, but you never really see any stunning dancing. The camera mostly focuses on Portman’s arms – and Benjamin Millepied did say he focused on the port de bras when training her and Kunis because you just can’t teach someone with no training to go on pointe and do the fouettes and pirouettes and all. So, you simply have to suspend disbelief that someone at Nina’s level would land the lead in the first place. And if you’re looking for thrilling dancing – the fouettes, the lightening-speed chaine turns, a beautiful pas de deux, etc., you’re not going to get it.
When we were all walking out, I did hear a couple people say now they wanted to see Swan Lake. Of course I hope it renews interest in the ballet, but it does worry me a bit that people will be disappointed, because the film makes it seem like the black swan pas de deux is a sex scene. The Peter Martins character keeps yelling at Nina to “seduce me, seduce me!” During a break he rhetorically asks Millepied (playing the role of Siegfried) if he would ever sleep with Nina (except he termed it differently). No one in the audience laughed but me. What am I the only New Yorker who reads the tabloids??? But in the ballet, the ballerina seduces both Siegfried and the audience with her allegro dancing, with her athletics. It’s more dance than theater; the seduction is in the dancing not the acting.
The whole thing had a Valley of the Dolls feel to it. Barbara Hershey is Portman’s mother, and she seems a bit off herself. You sometimes wonder if the mother (who never made it out of the corps, and who left ballet to have Nina) is trying to sabotage her daughter as well. There are some really funny (though I’m not sure if they were meant to be) screaming screeching cat-fight scenes between the two of them. But I think the funniest are between Winona Ryder as the aging ballet star forced into retirement and Nina, particularly those involving discussions of how to get ahead in the ballet company (guess; not by great dancing)… I miss Winona Ryder. I miss movies like Heathers…
Anyway, I still don’t know how to feel about this movie. I’m happy that it’s put ballet on people’s minds again, but how misleading is it to what an actual ballet performance is all about? What do you guys think? It seems to have received fairly good reviews from the film critics.