My Take on BLACK SWAN

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.

18 Comments

  1. I’m the “Gelsey Kirkland” friend and just a quick comment. It seems that dance lovers are all up in arms because they didn’t use a real dancer for the role of Nina. But I think that misses the point. This is a psychological study of an artist set at the ballet. A great dancer who was a passable actress would have been a disaster and Portman was beyond extraordinary in this film.

    The part of Amelia (Emilia?) in the Turning Point was written for Kirkland and she turned it down (actually she starved herself to sickness so she would be fired — she had no interest in making the film). Instead they cast Leslie Browne who was a “real” dancer. However, the character of Amelia is supposed to dazzle the New York dance cognoscenti so much that she shows up in New York unknown and they mount a production of Sleeping Beauty for her within a week. This is Leslie Browne we are talking about, someone who Baryshnikov, when asked about her dancing, said it was “nice.” She was no more believable than Willie Nelson doing ballet and being given the leading role in a week because for a professional dancer she was mediocre at best and unwatchable at worst. Had Kirkland actually taken the part it might have made sense.

    In any event, I loved the Black Swan. I thought it was alternately, hilarious, terrifying, intense and very sad. My only quibble was with the ending which I won’t discuss here. But the fact that a true dancer didn’t play Nina didn’t enter into my calculation.

    • Hi Jonathan – thanks for commenting here! And thanks for inviting me to the movie!

      Yeah, I’m disappointed they didn’t use Sarah Lane more, but as I said in the comments further down, in response to Steven, I don’t think there’s a dancer today who could really take on a role like this with acting training for dance being so different than acting for film. I think Natalie Portman did an excellent job. I’ll have to see The Turning Point again, but it’s interesting you think Gelsey Kirkland, who was obviously also a real dancer, could have done well in that role. It’s very rare, I think, for someone to excel – and I mean really excel at both dance and film acting.

      • Tonya,
        I don’t know how well Kirkland would have done acting-wise. But if she had danced in the film then all the hoopla surrounding the character would have made a lot more sense. She was, after all, the “greatest ballerina of her generation” according to Baryshnikov. FYI, she has appeared on “Law and Order” recently and did a good acting job so who knows. As it was, the most embarrassing dance moments of all time was watching Anne Bancroft pretend to be a ballerina in “Turning Point.” Now THAT was funny.

        • “As it was, the most embarrassing dance moments of all time was watching Anne Bancroft pretend to be a ballerina in “Turning Point.” Now THAT was funny.”

          Amen!!!

          I too am a little disappointed at Sarah not being used more. Frankly, Portman’s port de bras makes me shudder to the point that I just have to close my eyes until the scene is over. She’s an amazing, amazing actress but hasn’t even the slightest resemblance to a dancers body. There are plenty of dancers that are 5’3″ too, she just isn’t built like a ballerina. I feel the same towards Kunis, who got the role through Portman’s suggestion.

          I am glad however, to see real dancers like Sergio Torrado as Rothbart, and all the other artists of the Pennsylvania Ballet as the corps in the film.

          • Oh good – I’m glad they used dancers from the Pennsylvania Ballet! I’ll keep that in mind and will watch them more closely if I see this again (and knowing me, I will).

    • The character’s name was “Emilia”.
      I didn’t know they’d written that role for Gelsey Kirkland, though (though it makes sense, though it’s intriguing to find out she didn’t want the role, given how it ratcheted up Barishnikov’s recognizability factor. I guess she didn’t care about that?).

      “No one in the audience laughed but me. What am I the only New Yorker who reads the tabloids??? “
      LOL. I laughed, and so did some people around me, but I was at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on B’way & 63rd.

  2. Though the film is much less about the dancing than the acting, I have a greater appreciation for Benjamin Millepied’s talent as a choreographer and an artistic director in his own right. His partnering is splendid as ever, as is his apparent taste in girl friends.

    As far as Leslie Browne is concerned, I submit that both Black Swan and Turning Point featured actors imitating dancers. The exception was Starr Danias, a thrilling dancer with Joffrey Ballet and others. Among other roles, I vaguely recall an exceptional Sugar Plum Fairy.

    You surmise that the Black Swan director character is Peter Martins. So am I the only one that made an instant association between the aging dancer Beth and Darci Kistler (the grandmother reference was tacky)?

    • Oh I didn’t think about Darci, but, yeah, you’re right!

      I haven’t seen The Turning Point in a really long time and hardly remember it. I’m definitely going to have to put that on my Netflix queue. I don’t know much about Leslie Browne either unfortunately. I never had a chance to see her dance. Now I’m intrigued. Don’t know Starr Danais either! I’ll definitely have to have a look at that movie.

      Yeah, I don’t really think there is a dancer today who could take on an acting role like that. I was disappointed they didn’t use Sarah Lane more, but as far as having a dancer play this role, I think dancers have such different acting training, that’s not really suitable for the screen, for up close camera work. Acting for a large opera house is so different. I think it’s a rare person who could be both a ballet star and a movie star.

  3. On second thought, the Rose Adagio is the one part that Leslie Browne could have kept time with the music. To be fair, she was suitable to and lovely in Tudor works, particularly The Leaves Are Fading.

  4. I just saw the film. Problem; I don’t think it was meant to be camp. Would Natalie Portman have trained so much for a campy horror film?

    • That’s true! If he didn’t mean it to be campy, though, I wonder if he did mean for it to be a serious representation of the dance world… or if she at least thought that’s what she was signing up for?

      • I think he tried to make the movie everything. She was brilliant. But her dance training was really just so she could resemble a dancer and be believable. Her upper body, her neck, her hair, her face really looked the part. And the tension. Tonya, you have to read Dancing on My Grave.

  5. I was under the impression that this film wasn’t supposed to be funny at all but intense and…weird? If you laughed a lot, I’m a little fearful that the film might just be bad.

    • Every reviewer has mentioned the comic moments in this film, even the ones who gave it 5 stars. Best not to fear that a movie is bad if you haven’t seen it and if it’s pretty universally regarded as a near masterpiece by every film critic who has reviewed it.

  6. I was honestly initially interested in the film not because of the dancing that may or my not have been good in the film (although actors trying to pull it off makes me giggle) but because of the director Darren Aronofsky. One of my favorite films of all time, Requiem for a Dream, was directed by him so I knew this was going to be a twisted film for sure. I actually just watched The Turning Point last night and the part of Emelia, played by Leslie Browne, was very well casted because that character wasn’t very complex. Portman’s character, however, could only be played by the best of the best in the business to make it believable.
    As dancers I think we go into the theater with already negative preconceived notions towards the film because there has YET to be a movie (or television show for that matter) that can truly depict the blood, sweat, and tears, that goes into a dancer’s life. I mean, at least for me, anyways I am always leaving the theater saying “are you freaking kidding me?”
    Looking at it aside from that, it must be applauded for brilliant film making.

  7. Tonya, I am someone who has done both film acting and ballet professionally. Here’s what I suggest: Next time someone does a ballet film hire some good dancers and train Them for a year in a pro acting environment for film. I believe that is a lot easier than the other way around, which never really works. I just saw the film tonight, and got the impression it was more Aronofsky’s fantasia on ballet than anything else. There are many different ways to read it.
    Regarding The Turning Point. I knew the Brown family a little bit. I went to S.A.B. and A.B.T. with her siblings, who were also dancers. As pretty as Leslie was, her brother Ethan was just as cute! Lol! I used to see Leslie around quite a bit at A.B.T., and she was going through a hard time, frankly, because of that movie. I believe there were a lot of expectations placed on her because of the role she played in the film, and it took several years for her to find her own authentic voice as a dancer. Which she did, to her credit.

    Always enjoy reading your blog!

    Take care,

    Jeff

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